What Your Anxiety Is Really Trying To Tell You

I don’t know about you, but a lot of people today look at anxiety as if it’s this amorphous, inexplicable, physical phenomenon. They view it as an uncomfortable symptom that needs to be treated with medication, or with anything that will make it “go away.”

As a psychologist, I prefer to look at it like this: Anxiety is the emotional equivalent of Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction; it’s thoughts or feelings that we’re not paying attention to REFUSING TO BE IGNORED.

The best clinical explanation that I’ve ever heard for a panic attack is that it’s a ton of suppressed feelings rising to the surface of our experience, simultaneously and in full force. I agree with that assessment, and I think that something akin to it can be said about anxiety in general:

Anxiety is your body’s way of trying to get your attention. It’s an invitation from your unconscious, alerting you to something in your emotional life that needs to be heard.

Unfortunately, because most of us “deal” with anxiety by trying to make it go away, that message is never acknowledged. As a result, it continues to haunt us.

If we approach things with curiosity instead — if we wonder WHY we’re feeling anxious instead of forcing it into subterranean territory — then we can understand it, and we can find relief.

In my clinical work, I have the following experience with a great amount of frequency:

A client comes in to my office (or meets me on Skype, as it were) and tells me that she’s been feeling anxious but that she doesn’t know why. As we begin to explore it (What’s been happening in your life this week? When did you notice this feeling start to come on?), we always eventually land on the piece of insight that unlocks the puzzle — and suddenly the root cause of the discomfort is obvious to both us.

Once we gain that clarity, everything seems to make sense, and a feeling of relief emerges. Simply being able to hold the anxiety with understanding makes all the difference.

The funny part is how self-evident it seems once you figure it out.

I’ll give you an example, and instead of choosing something from my clinical work, I’ll borrow from my own life. Being an effective therapist does not mean escaping human suffering, but living through it and surviving to tell the tale.

In the spring of 2003, I experienced a spell of personal tragedies in short succession. In February, my only sister was diagnosed with cancer. In March, I lost my job during a massive round of layoffs in the music industry, which was where I worked at the time. In April, my boyfriend broke up with me unexpectedly and, because we lived together, this plunged me into a temporary state of “couch surfing” (thank god for good friends), because I was — to put it quite technically — suddenly unemployed and homeless.

The anxiety that I felt in the weeks and months that followed was absolutely unbearable. Because I needed to focus on putting my life back together by doing things like apartment and job hunting, in many ways I had to shelve what was happening in my emotional life in the service on just getting back on my feet. But sleep did not come easily, and food has never been less appealing; my entire body buzzed as if I’d been plugged into an electrical socket.

That said, the “interpretation” of the underlying cause of my anxiety is pretty uncomplicated: I had been emotionally traumatized. It was as if I’d survived some sort of personal tsunami, because the ground underneath my feet — everything I thought I knew about what made me feel secure in life — changed so quickly.

While the passage of time helped for some of my anxiety to subside, I didn’t begin to truly heal until I started a new course of therapy with a woman who was able to help me make space for the feelings that were running amok inside of me. She created a safe landing place for me to explore my emotions so that I could face them and allow them to release — rather than leaving them to bounce around between my ribs like a bird, furious in its cage.

To give you a sense of how far I’ve come between then and now, I spent this past holiday season in a state of deep contentment, making food in a slow cooker at my home in San Francisco and reading by my Christmas tree — seemingly an entirely different person from that young woman who was sleepless, heartbroken, and terrified so many years ago now.

But this is the way emotions work. They’re not etched in stone; they retreat once we greet them, and are willing to learn what they’ve shown up to teach us.