Avoiding Anxiety Might Keep You Feeling Really Anxious
Emotions are like water.
When we talk about feelings, we often use water imagery to describe the experience: a wave of sorrow overcame her or a feeling of joy welled up inside him. I don't think it's a coincidence that writers use water imagery for emotions, because the fluidity and motion of water is a good way to describe how we experience an emotion. Emotions typically emerge, increase in intensity, and then eventually subside. Keeping this imagery in mind can be very helpful when dealing with difficult emotions like fear, dread, anxiety, and even panic.
What happens when you avoid a feeling like anxiety.
An interesting phenomenon occurs when you avoid or try to control a difficult feeling that begins to emerge. It can get more intense, overwhelming and can last longer! In fact, we use the water analogy in therapy, when someone is overwhelmed with emotion we describe them as flooded. To be flooded is to be overwhelmed and feel out of control. It may start when you first sense some fear or dread, you may think "oh, no, not now!" and begin to recall times you struggled with this before. Or perhaps you have thoughts about how bad this is going to be or how you won't be able to get through your day feeling like this. Maybe you try to distract yourself from it and push it away. Unfortunately, what was a slight feeling of fear or dread has turned into full-blown anxiety that seems to get worse and doesn't want to subside.
What does avoidance looks like?
There are lots of ways we avoid feelings when they happen. You may find yourself staying away from situations, people or activities that might trigger anxiety or struggling to ignore thoughts and memories because they will bring up difficult feelings. You might numb yourself with food, alcohol or some other substance. You may constantly check and recheck or procrastinate to avoid a difficult feeling. You might even avoid an unpleasant emotion by replacing it with another, for example, swapping out anger for fear or sadness.
The problem with all of these avoidance strategies is that the feeling you are trying to avoid doesn't usually go away, but instead lingers, is sustained, or can get more intense.
What can you do with difficult feelings instead of avoiding them?
The reason we avoid painful feelings is because they are painful! It doesn't seem intuitive to want to experience pain - our natural inclination is to move away from it, fix it, or get rid of it. However, insights from the world's philosophies, religions, and arts, as well as psychological research*, show that if you are willing to experience, express and lean into emotions they will more likely follow their characteristic wave pattern, welling up and then subsiding, rather than growing and sustaining intensity (the flood).
Being willing to have painful experiences like anxiety doesn't require feats of courage and endurance. It's not a marathon training! Rather, consider where avoidance occurs and think of ways that you can (in small, manageable ways) stay with the feeling that is coming up for you. See if you can stay with the feeling for a little longer and be curious about it's qualities and what happens to it. What does it feel like? Where do you notice it in your body? Does it stay the same? Does it change in intensity or quality? It can be helpful to use relaxation breathing to support you through this, as well as exercises to stay in the present moment.
Leaning into painful feelings isn't easy but considering the costs of avoidance can help provide some meaning. Perhaps you avoid having anxiety but it costs you at work, or in relationships or overall satisfaction with your life. How would your life be different, richer or fuller if you were willing to have this feeling?
*Ford, BQ, et al. (2017) The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28703602