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When Taking a Few Deep Breaths isn’t Enough

Years ago, a friend and I were having coffee at a local Starbucks (aw, I miss those days). As we sipped our latte’s and caught on the ups and downs of our lives, she was sharing about her daughter’s test-taking anxiety. She described how her daughter would just break down in tears anytime she had a test at school.

“We are doing all the strategies I can think of.” My friend said. “We have tried deep breathing, taking it to the worst-case scenario and even tapping, and nothing works.”

I said, “Have you tried normalizing the anxiety. Telling her, wow, it must be hard to feel so anxious, test-taking is scary, what else are you feeling about the test?.”

My friend looked at me, shocked, “No,” she said. “wouldn’t that give more energy to the anxiety?”

One of the biggest myths about anxiety is that it is irrational, and we shouldn’t give it any energy. Those of us with High Functioning Anxiety have swallowed this myth hook line and sinker. There are so many strategies for dealing with anxiety, mindfulness, yoga, managing your thoughts, and those strategies work, but there is a critical step that HAS to come first. Acknowledging the anxiety. Acknowledging the feelings.

I ran from my anxiety for years, telling myself it was irrational, it was silly, I SHOULD NOT feel this way. And none of the strategies worked for me. Taking it out to the worst-case scenario made me feel worse. Mindfulness made me feel inept because it was so hard and changing my thoughts left me feeling temporarily better but still anxious. So I went with distraction. Distraction came by pushing, over-functioning, doing more and more and more. And when that was too much, it came through numbing, with food, alcohol, TV. I jumped between these 2 worlds: distraction than numbing.

When I say to myself, I SHOULD NOT feel this way; I am, in essence, going to war with myself. I am telling myself what I am feeling is WRONG stop doing that. And that message inherently puts me on the defensive. It makes me more anxious because now I am irrational. I am a neurotic freak. What is wrong with me!?!? So on top of feeling anxious, I shame myself for feeling anxious. I am NOT practicing self-loyalty.

But when I stop and notice the anxiety, and notice myself getting hopped up and I am over-functioning, I can pause and say to myself, wow, there it is again, hello anxiety. When I pause, I can ask myself what else is going on. What else are you feeling?!? This process feels like a big exhale. Rather than shaming a part of me for being irrational, I am acknowledging how hard that is.

Quick side note here and this process I described above of noticing the over-functioning and pausing isn’t always smooth. Sometimes I do notice it in the moment or within 30-60 minutes of over-functioning. But more often, I don’t notice the over-functioning until I collapse on the couch exhausted. And I think—wait a minute, I have been pushing hard today; what is going on? Or I am touchy with my husband, and I think—wait a minute, that was unnecessary; what is going on?!

The biggest push back I get to this idea from clients is, “Well, won’t I get lost in the anxiety? I mean, if I give it energy, won’t I get swallowed up by it.” Trust me, I understand that push back. I thought that way for years. Because my whole life, I was told to keep pushing, keep powering through, AND I was given lots of praise for over-functioning. But the strategy was forcing me to ignore and shame a huge part of myself.

I was scared to give myself permission to feel the anxiety (and everything else), but I was also desperate to stop feeling miserable. So I tried it. I tried turning and facing the anxiety. Initially, It was hard, and it was uncomfortable, AND it felt good. It felt good to FINALLY stop fighting myself to finally say accept myself. The truth is I do have anxiety, and it sucks when it is running the show. Pretending that doesn’t exist or ignoring it is turning my back on part of myself. To stop the anxiety, I have to acknowledge it. I have to face it and be kind to myself about it. THEN I can try the strategies of mindfulness, moving my body, or taking it to the worst-case scenario.

I never followed up with my friend until recently when I asked her if the strategy of acknowledging the anxiety helped. “Oh my gosh, yes,” she said on the phone. “I can’t believe I never told you. It was something so simple, and yet I would have never thought about it. My daughter still practices it today—when she notices the anxiety, she gives herself some kindness and then goes into the strategies she has for decreasing it. She still has anxiety, but it doesn’t control her life.”