Are you anxious about being anxious?
As someone who has suffered from life-long anxiety, I know well the experience of ‘being anxious about being anxious’. I remember when I was in law school being overwhelmed by anxiety about how I was going to cope and manage the heavy workload -- classes, reading, assignments, etc. In the event, it was all too much and I dropped out. As a junior foreign service officer, I enacted the same pattern catastrophizing about my perceived helplessness at dealing with a health crisis (a nervous breakdown or a physical disease) while on a foreign posting in a developing country. Needless to say that career choice had to end (at least, so I thought); avoidance was then my strategy of choice.
Anxiety about my health has plagued me for much of my life, and has become more frequent with aging. Diagnostic, invasive procedures cause me a great deal of anxiety once I learn that they need to be scheduled. The anxiety experienced is more about the test itself than it is about an unfavourable outcome to it, although that also increases my discomfort.
How is it then that I can find this drawing of Charlie Brown funny?
Here’s the answer: When I’m thrown into a situation that I find too demanding on my personal resources, changes take place in body chemistry and function (fight-flight-freeze response) that I pick up and, in effect, are held captive by. These changes are perceived by my senses; my rational thinking becomes a hostage to this sensory data and is supplanted by disordered thinking. No amount of the thinking helps, it only compounds the anxiety and may lead to being anxious about being anxious. And, understanding this process doesn't provide much relief either.
If there is the slightest ambiguity, worry. I phone my son and he doesn’t answer. He must be dead. Now, there could be a thousand reasons he is not answering the phone. He’s in the shower. He fell in love. He’s sleeping. But my mind goes to the worst extrapolation of that. Anxiety is the free-floating hyperactivity of the mind that only wants to consider the worst possible outcome.
RELATIONSHIP = DISTANCE + CONNECTION
Now, when I look at the comic strip and find it amusing, there is some distance between me and the situation that Charlie Brown finds himself in. I am not Charlie Brown after all; I am my own person. I can laugh at, not in a cruel way, and sympathize with all the personas that Charles Schulz has created in ‘Peanuts’ and how they behave with each other and in given circumstances. This way of relating to Charlie Brown can actually be used in working with my anxiety when it surfaces.
There is in each of us a whole or full self that can experience in the present other parts of ourselves without identifying, or merging, with them. And, if those parts can be treated in a non-judgmental fashion, with friendly curiosity, kindness, caring, and acceptance, I may be capable of forming a new, more helpful, and healing relationship with them.
What I’ve described here is the attitude that is part of Focusing, specifically Inner Relationship Focusing, that I use in my coaching with clients who have anxiety. If this speaks to you and you’d like to find out more, please get in touch with me.