More and more, I am thinking that anxiety is about trying to cover up your feelings. You don’t want to feel whatever it is that you are feeling, so you try everything in your arsenal to stop feeling. You tense your muscles, constrict your breathing, start thinking obsessively, focus on external sensations or fill your body with too much food or alcohol or other chemicals to numb whatever is happening.
But the body doesn’t buy it. Instead, it sends you a message that something is wrong. Tense muscles, upset digestive processes, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, pains in gut and head, shakiness or trembling….all of these body experiences can connect to anxiety. Anxiety isn’t exactly fear. Fear is cleaner, has a more specific focus. But fear can be one of the emotions we try to cover up…and that can result in anxiety.
How can you recognize anxiety? It can show up as body symptoms: tensions, pain, nausea or other digestive upsets, headaches. It can show up as shakiness, foggy thinking and an inability to concentrate. Or it can appear in disguise. This is what happens when our defenses against anxiety are working to keep us from feeling it. So, for example, I tend to make internal lists, develop complex plans for my future, create diet and exercise and frugality hell for my body to live in. I have learned to recognize that my mind uses these tools to defend against my anxious feelings. When I am doing a lot of rigid planning and programming for myself in my mind, I know (in some other part of my mind) that I need to look deeper. This is one way that I manifest anxiety.
You might have racing thoughts. Or worrying. Or obsessive ritualistic behaviour such as around cleaning, or working out, or making contacts with people. Or avoiding contact with people. Many different behaviours can be manifestations of anxiety because we learn very quickly to make associations. That is, if we engage in a behaviour and experience a lessening of the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, then we are pretty likely to engage that behaviour again. Sometimes it is almost as if the behaviour IS the anxiety; so we think our racing thoughts ARE anxiety. But really they are an attempt to cope with the body sensations that are unpleasant.
Learning to live with emotional discomfort is just as useful as learning to live with physical discomfort. We don’t have to happy, contented, or relaxed ALL of the time. Allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, experience what our body is experiencing, and just being present to it….well, that’s a great way to be really alive.
How do you do that when you have only ever run away from your feelings? Yes, that’s the hard part. It helps to remember that you are just going to be FEELING something…and feelings, like thoughts, come and then then go. And it helps to remember that nobody ever died from just feeling something. Watching out for catastrophic thinking helps too….thinking thoughts like “I can’t stand this” won’t make it easier to actually stay right with that feeling. So when you feel a bit anxious, see if you can give yourself some time and space to just ask what might be there under the anxious feeling? What else is there? Allow yourself to breathe into your belly, and feel your feet on the ground, and ask….what is this about? What do I notice in my body? Oh, yes, this sensation in my belly, and this one in my chest….oh, THIS…this is sadness….(or anger, or fear or whatever…). Then watch that felt sense with kindness and compassion and some curiosity…oh, yes, this is what I am experiencing right now….THIS is it. And watch it as it shifts and changes, and notice what that is like for you. Giving yourself time and space and permission to have feelings can make a big difference.
The huge benefit to allowing ourselves to fully experience our uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or unpleasant feelings is that ALL of our feelings become more accessible. When you experience your own integrity, where you are not hiding, covering up, or showing off your emotions, you feel yourself more solidly on the ground, and more real in your body. And that’s what life is about…being here, in this body, in this moment, right now.
You are a human being. You have a whole range of feelings as your birthright. Don’t live your life halfway: feel them all!