Anxiety sucks. It can weigh on you every moment of the day and rob you of your ability to enjoy anything. It can ruin relationships, sabotage performance and even lead to suicide. It’s also the issue people most frequently want to address with me in therapy. Over the years, I’ve learned that there are three essential steps that almost everyone who suffers from anxiety needs to take.
CALM YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM
I know what you’re thinking: “I’ve been to counselling, and some asshole told me to do breathing exercises/yoga/meditation and expected my anxiety to disappear just like that.” I agree: that counsellor was an asshole. If it were that simple, you’d have figured it out by now and you’d be walking around in a state of Zen-like bliss.
Still, there’s truth to the idea that overcoming anxiety requires some concrete strategies for calming your nervous system. Physiologically speaking, high levels of anxiety tell us that your brain is kicking into fight or flight mode, and unless you’re actually in danger, that’s not very helpful. Meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness, yoga, drumming, dancing, walking and martial arts have all been proven to calm the nervous system. Caffeine and other stimulants, on the other hand, have been proven to be not so calming.
BE WHO YOU ARE
At the end of the day, a wonky nervous system is just a symptom, not a cause. The most common cause of anxiety isn’t brain chemistry; it’s people not being who they are. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Being yourself means knowing and living in accordance with your values, engaging in activities you enjoy, and naming and expressing your emotions (yes, even the less comfortable ones like sadness and anger). Not being yourself means sacrificing any or all of that in order to live up to someone else’s standards.
Deep down we all have a sense of who we are and how we’re supposed to live. The problem is, most families, schools, religions and other institutions are unhealthy, and rather than helping us become who we are, they try to form us into who they want us to be. Sooner or later, we internalize these expectations and inflict them on ourselves. To the extent that there’s a gap between those expectations and who we really are, we feel anxious.
LET GO OF PAST BURDENS
Being yourself is a hell of a lot easier said than done. All my anxious clients have been taught at some point, in some way, that being themselves is extremely dangerous. Sometimes it’s through overt abuse, like the father who beats his son for “talking back.” More often, it’s through subtler forms of abuse, like the religion that teaches homosexuality is sinful or the society that marginalizes women who refuse to be passive. Either way, most of us carry burdens from the past — and present — that prevent us from being ourselves. A good therapist can help you let go of those burdens.
If you’re ready to start addressing your anxiety, try following these three steps. Being authentic isn’t easy, but neither is living a life constrained by fear and worry.
John works as a therapist in Waterloo.