It speaks to the stigma that is still attached to anxiety that one doesn’t ‘have anxiety’ unless they fit the image of a nervous wreck, unable to lead an ambitious and successful life. There is disbelief and even accusations of ‘attention seeking’ behavior that those whose lives appear ordered, achievement filled, ambitious, and even sociable could possibly experience ‘real distress’.
The thing we often forget is that anxiety is just one of the many emotions we can experience on a daily basis. Anxiety serves a useful function for us- signalling when we might be in danger and alerting us to the need to protect ourselves. Put this way, anyone can experience anxiety and it is far more accurate to define it as whenever we feel fearful yet do not believe we have the ability to cope. It is not knowing what to do or how to face what we are fearful about that causes distressing anxiety. Whether it is low-grade worry that hums in the background or full blown I-can’t-think-straight panic, it can be experienced and equally challenging for anyone to deal with.
This misconception unfortunately leads to expectations we very often hear about to just ‘be positive’ and be (or at least appear to be) worry-free. It leads to expectations that we should simply know what to do to fix our worries. Over time, this becomes the unspoken pressure to dismiss anxiety unless it is ‘serious’ enough but by then, it has probably already caused much distress and difficulties in our lives.
We overlook the fact that learning to cope with anxiety is more like a skill that is developed over time instead of an innate talent that one is necessarily born with. Very few of us were ever explicitly taught how to deal with overwhelming feelings of worry and how to cope when it strikes. When we expect that we should just know how to deal with anxious feelings, we place unnecessary and unfair pressure on ourselves. Furthermore, the shame attached to not knowing makes it even more difficult for us to reach out and start learning those very skills.
Part of the nature of anxiety is that it makes us think we are not good enough and undeserving of help. It stems from fears that we are and never will be worthy of love and care from others and most importantly, ourselves. So we end up isolating ourselves or rejecting and lashing out at those who want to help us, including the part of us that is fearful and anxious.
This means that we must first reach out to those we can trust and allow them to help us compassionately and non-judgmentally look at the patterns which anxiety has created in our lives. The irony to learning to cope with anxiety is acknowledging that it will likely remain a part of your life yet does not have to control it. It is about getting intimate with it; knowing when it tends to appear, how we are usually tempted to deal with it (freeze up, run away, deny it’s even there) and what a healthier way of dealing with it would be. To get rid of anxiety from our lives would mean we never get the chance to experiment with what works. In the end, we can only ever know and get better at dealing with our anxieties if we spend time with it. This includes taking time to gently notice our everyday anxious moments, even when it appears that we ‘have it all together’.