Do you find the term “anxiety” a bit puzzling? It’s always been described to me as a non-specific fear. My fears are always specific, so I never knew quite how to differentiate fear from anxiety until I read an article about anxiety by Brooke Castillo that clarified the issue for me. She described anxiety the same way, but then she listed the mistaken ways people choose to respond to it: resist it, react to it, or avoid it.
Resisting it consists of getting angry at yourself for feeling what you’re feeling. Reacting to it consists of getting all wound up—tense and pressure-filled—so you take frenzied action, act out emotionally, and force yourself. Avoiding it consists of doing something to just feel better temporarily—eating, drinking, watching TV, etc. Brooke calls this last “buffering,” which is a great term for it.
That’s when the lightbulb went off. I recognize all of these responses. They all create vicious cycles through their compulsive qualities. The vicious cycle can be difficult to break out of.
If you get mad at yourself for feeling what you’re feeling, this will intensify all of your feelings, so you’ll get madder, until you have no mental “crow” space to think. The focus is on you and your deficiencies, a regrettably compelling topic for anyone who hasn’t learned how to manage self-criticism constructively. In such a loop of self-recrimination, it’s difficult to even remember what you were working on, why you were trying to do whatever you were doing, or what would be good to do next.
If instead, you tense up and apply pressure to yourself to act, to “fix it” where “it” is deliberately vague, your actions will be subpar. They will not reflect your best judgment, your full knowledge, or your potential for creativity. Typically a person notices this, then amps up the tension and pressure level—reducing effectiveness further. When you are all wound up this way, you create a kind of tunnel vision. It’s difficult to remember the fact that there are other possibilities for dealing with the situation, competing desires, or wider issues.
Similarly, if you buffer, you create a compulsion to keep buffering. When you avoid an issue by doing something else that feels better temporarily, you reinforce the idea that what you’re avoiding is too awful to deal with. The thing you’re avoiding starts to take on the character of a bogeyman. Then if you pause your eating or TV-watching or other buffering, the negative feeling comes back stronger. This makes it seem more urgent to divert your attention back to the buffering. But when you’re absorbed in TV, you are not cognizant of what matters to you.
All of these responses divert you from awareness of the underlying issues, in order to protect you from the feelings those issues trigger. In my experience, those feelings are much more personal than fear. They are more often guilt, or shame, or hatred.
When you’re anxious, the thing you fear is the awful feelings you’ll feel if you were more aware of the issues.
This is why first aid for anxiety is:
- Physically, start deep breathing, which enables you to experience any emotion, however intense, and let it pass.
- Cognitively, introspect your thoughts and feelings to reveal the internal logic of your automatized response, so you can untangle any mistakes and clarify the values at stake.
- Motivationally, remind yourself of your power. Turn your attention to the facts of the situation and the values at stake, and find a step you are willing to take toward a rational value. You can do this regardless of your current knowledge, your current skill, or your current value system. Start from where you are, and take a step toward the top value at stake for you right now. You can always do this. Always.
Now that I understand what anxiety refers to, I see I have it sometimes. And I see what the fuss is about. When you’re feeling anxiety, you are two steps removed from the real issue. What matters most in that moment is that you give yourself the gift of awareness.