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Why You Should Engage with Your Anxiety

September 7, 2019 George Abitante

When you feel anxious, it is natural to look for ways to get rid of it immediately; engaging the anxiety fully isn't the most comfortable choice. In general, looking to get rid of anxiety is an effective response because it allows us to evade danger and survive. However, for chronic anxiety that isn't tied to immediate threats, it can be harmful to focus on avoiding or eliminating anxiety because this can actually exacerbate it.

If I told you not to think about what to eat for breakfast, it's likely that the first thing you'd think of is precisely that, and this is the same trap we fall into with anxiety when we attempt avoidance. Rather than giving us peace of mind, it just brings our anxiety to the forefront of our minds. So, is there a better option? I believe the answer is a resounding yes. You can choose to engage with your anxiety instead.

How I Learned to Engage with Anxiety

When I was in college and experiencing frequent panic attacks, I tried my best to avoid them initially. There was no way I'd engage that anxiety. So I ate, slept, and worked in ways that I thought would help me avoid panic, but it kept coming up anyways. What ended up reducing my panic was something entirely unexpected -- I allowed myself to be curious about panic. Instead of looking for ways to avoid it, I began looking for ways to learn from my panic. Although it took some time for this change in mindset to occur, once I embraced this curiosity, I stopped experiencing panic attacks almost entirely. 

Now, you may say there's nothing you're curious about with your anxiety, and you very well may be right. In my case, curiosity provided a productive avenue for me to engage with my anxiety, but there may be another avenue for you. For instance, you may be able to engage with your anxiety through drawing, music, or writing, each of which can provide positive opportunities to work through your anxiety. I'm not suggesting you draw or write when you're anxious as a way to escape, however. Instead, I believe that identifying ways to focus on your anxiety that aren't centered on yourself can reduce anxiety. By thinking about anxiety independently of ourselves, we limit its control over how we feel and attain a better understanding of its role in our lives. This can be a challenging process, so below I share three methods I use to put myself in a mindset that allows me to engage with anxiety in a productive, healthy way. 

Three Ways to Engage With Your Anxiety

  1. Identify a focal point. Start by finding an aspect of your anxiety that you can focus on without thinking primarily about yourself. This is a challenging process, but I found this very useful when I was experiencing frequent panic attacks. Eventually, I was able to embrace a mindset of curiosity because I began to see my panic as an opportunity to learn something that might help someone else in the future. Once I saw my panic attacks as valuable experiences that could provide insight into someone else's suffering, they lost the power to make me afraid, and instead became objects of my curiosity. The key, I believe, is that my own experiences were taken out of consideration and my focus became exclusively the hypothetical individual I could support precisely because of my panic. Now, you don't have to engage with your anxiety in the same way, but the idea is to find something about your anxiety that draws you out of yourself and fixes your attention on some "other". 
  2. Identify a reminder. One problem I had initially with this strategy was that it was hard to remember my new focal point when a panic attack first started. I would often go a minute or two without thinking about my curiosity, and eventually, I was able to remind myself and shift my attention. Keeping a post-it note, a journal, or even writing on your hand can be a great way to remind yourself to shift from focusing on your anxiety to your new focal point. Regardless of what reminder you use, it's important to have that reminder in place so that you don't forget to change your mindset. 
  3. Embrace patience. Initially, I would still worry about how long I'd feel anxious for, but eventually, I allowed myself to be patient and to just let myself flow with the experience. Changing the way you engage with anxiety can be a slow process, so embracing opportunities to practice without judging how long it takes to feel better is a crucial step towards reducing your anxiety. Change takes time, and although we often want immediate gratification, the path to sustainable results is a long and often circuitous one. 

I hope these strategies provide you with a starting point for engaging with your anxiety in a healthier, more productive manner. Although it can take time, shifting our attention from ourselves to another aspect of anxiety can provide new insights, novel experiences, and meaningful change. 

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, September 7). Why You Should Engage with Your Anxiety , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/9/why-you-should-engage-with-your-anxiety-0



Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is focused on improving the efficacy and accessibility of treatments for depression and anxiety. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

Lizanne Corbit
says:
September, 8 2019 at 2:30 pm
I think this is a wonderful suggestion. Anxiety (like fear, shame, doubt etc.) is something that we almost instantly want to disregard, but it's always asking us to acknowledge it. As soon as we acknowledge, rather than grow bigger as we think it might, it begins to quiet down. It craves our attention and our refusals only fuel it. I love the idea of keeping a post-it handy to remind you of your focus.

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