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Awesome Mekalah’s Burning Question: “I’ve had severe anxiety most of my life and it keeps me from many things. I’m entering my last year of high school and I’m extremely nervous and anxious about it because my school schedule isn’t the way I thought it would be and I’m trying to manifest a car so I have a reliable way to get to and from school. Also after High School, I plan on pursuing an acting career and I’ve decided it is greater than my desire to go to college, so I won’t be going to college. What can I do to make sure that I WILL be successful in my career and how can I eliminate my growing stress about what I’m going to do during school and when I graduate?”
Dear Awesome Mekalah,
Thank you so much for your question. Anxiety is a pretty rampant problem in our society today, so I’m really happy to have the chance to address it in a way you may not have seen before.
What exactly causes anxiety?
While people can be afraid of many, many things, the root cause of anxiety is always that you have a belief, an expectation, that something bad is about to happen. You feel that you are in danger, and your body responds appropriately. Your fight or flight response is engaged, you’re pumped full of adrenaline, and, if you can’t either fight or flee, you feel like you want to rip your skin off.
You see, your reptilian brain, the part of your brain that’s in charge of basic survival, doesn’t know the difference between a fear of being rejected or humiliated and a fear of actually physically being harmed. It classifies all danger as the same – it’s all super bad. “Run!”, it screams at you. And, if you were truly in danger, you would. But then, your Prefrontal Cortex jumps in and argues that you’re not actually in danger. You’re on the subway. You’re safe. Logically, there’s nothing to worry about. If only someone would tell the lizard mind in charge of your body’s pharmaceutical supply.
Some anxiety is severe, like panic attacks. They can make you feel like a crazy person, totally out of control and even unable to function. Many people suffer silently, holding it together when an episode hits, so no one will know. Others suffer from an ongoing, ever present sense of dread and fear. Anxiety can be situational, meaning that it’s triggered by certain, identifiable events, or it can be general, which is harder to get to the root of. But, no matter how much anxiety you have or how often it hits you, it’s still all about a negative expectation. Bad shit is about to happen, and you’d really rather not be here right now.
Why we’re all scared
There are two reasons why our society is rife with anxiety these days. The first is that we, as a culture, focus so relentlessly on danger. Our news media streams almost exclusively fear-mongering content. We are told not to feel safe. Not mistrusting every stranger that smiles at your kid is considered irresponsible parenting. Walking down the street with keys firmly between your fingers while making a fist, ready to strike any attacker, is pretty much standard for any woman living in a city. And if you eat or drink anything, there’s an army of experts ready to inform you of how you’re almost certainly going to die soon. If the hamburgers don’t get you, the latest epidemic will.
We’re led to believe that every time we get on a plane, we’re taking our lives into our own hands. Even though thousands of planes take off and land every day without incident. Our kids are almost certainly going to get molested or run over if we fail to keep an eye on them at all times. Bad people are everywhere. In fact, pretty much any stranger is probably bad. The guy driving the car next to you? He’s just waiting for a chance to cut you off, go postal and cause an accident. And if they’re not evil, they’re dangerously stupid. Yep, those idiots will inadvertently get you or your loved ones hurt or killed.
In short, we are being told, over and over again, that we are in danger. We should fear everything – technology, food, nature, and most especially, each other. No wonder we’re all so afraid.
But, there’s also a second reason that anxiety has become such a huge issue: our willingness to put up with it. If a situation causes us to become afraid, we’re much more likely than ever to just stay put. We don’t want to be weird, or offend anyone, or to miss out. We might look bad, be embarrassed or get fired. If you leave the subway because you’re feeling like you’re going to get crushed in a tiny metal tube, you’ll be late for work. So you stay and clench your teeth. You stay late at a job you hate because you want that promotion. You still won’t like the job, but at least you’ll get paid more. You even go to that family dinner that makes you want to rip your hair out so that you won’t offend your relatives. You know, the ones who don’t understand boundaries and still tease you about that time when you wet the bed (you were 5).
Your body may be telling you to flee, but your logical mind tells you to stay. And so, you do. The resulting discomfort, no matter how painful, is just something you have to put up with. In fact, many people pride themselves on their ability to handle a lot of pain and fear. We look down on those who snap and can’t take it anymore, those who freak out, those who actually leave the situation, and those who rebel. And when it all becomes too much to handle, we take medications to help us numb the fear.
We have resigned ourselves to the fact that life is scary and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Because of this, many people who suffer from anxiety are met with contempt. They’re just too weak to handle life (which is hard and scary). It’s also why we feel the need to defend ourselves, become so easily offended, and stockpile guns. We’re seeing evidence of this fear all over the news. Oh, and just to make the list complete, this overriding fear also has a lot to do with the obesity epidemic. Yeah, fear’s kind of a big deal these days.
What’s your set point?
Now that we understand the two main root causes of our society’s anxiety culture, we can start to look at real solutions. As you may imagine, I’m not a big proponent of the “just put up with it” paradigm, nor am I a big supporter of medication (although I do think it can be useful in some cases, when used as a temporary tool, and only along with therapy or other forms of inner work).
The solution to anxiety has to be more holistic than that. If you’re having panic attacks in the subway, you’re not just claustrophobic. And labeling yourself as such in an attempt to explain your fear while also allowing you to simply put up with it isn’t helpful (as in, “there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m claustrophobic”). If a loud noise can send you over the edge, the noise isn’t the problem. The issue is with your normal set point of fear – the amount of underlying anxiety that’s present throughout the day. If you’re always pumped full of adrenalin, a small shot of surprise or shock can send you over the edge.
So, if you’re suffering from anxiety, you’re not going to get much relief if you’re looking for one issue, one fear, one trigger. You’re going to need to take a look at your life and how you show up in it. Basically, the problem lies in how you see yourself and how you relate to the world around you. You likely have a whole host of negative expectations around your own ability to navigate reality, as well as how much power others have over you. Get rid of the underlying fears, lower the set point, and you’ll automatically decrease or eliminate the panic attacks.
But, how do we do that?
This is the solution that many people don’t want to hear. It’s not a pill. It can’t be done in an afternoon. And it can’t be farmed out to someone else. You actually have to do the work yourself, with yourself, and yes, some of it will be uncomfortable. You’re going to have to make some changes in your life. But, considering that you’re probably already making changes – you may well be limiting your movements or experiences in an attempt to avoid triggers, this is an effort worth making.
Although anxiety is a holistic issue, there is often one area of life that’s causing most of the damage. For most people, this area will be either work or family (or both). In your case it may be school and or/family. Sufferers of anxiety feel trapped. There’s something in their lives that they don’t like that doesn’t feel good, but they feel they can’t get away from it. In your case, when the fear is about the future, the cause of the anxiety is the assumption that the situation you’re going to face will feel bad. You’re not going to get what you want. The greater your desire for what you want, the greater the fear.
Fear of the future is much easier to address than fears caused by being trapped, but I’ll address both.
When you feel trapped in a situation that doesn’t feel good, like a sucky job that you can’t quit because then how would your family eat, or aging parents that need you to take care of them but who make it hard for you to do so, it leads to stress. This stress turns into anxiety after a while. If you want to feel better, you’ll have to take a good, hard look at how you actually feel and what you’re assuming about your options.
Step 1 – First, you’ll want to acknowledge how you feel. This is often a very difficult step for people. Admitting that they hate their jobs or are overburdened by family can be hard, especially if they don’t think there’s anything they can do about it. Don’t worry about the solution at this point. Just acknowledge what feels bad and why. Let’s use the example of “I hate my job”. Often, simply admitting that you loathe your career or that your marriage was over years ago will bring a huge flood of relief.
Step 2 – Figure out what you want instead. Again, don’t worry about how you might get what you want. Trying to figure that out at this point will shut down the whole process, so stay away from that. Just figure out what you want. For example, “I want a job that excites me, a boss that appreciates me, awesome co-workers, reasonable hours and great pay.” By activating the energy of what you want, you accelerate the process of shifting and feeling better.
Step 3 – ASSUME that there’s a way for you to get what you want. This requires you to stop being so damn realistic for just a minute. What if there is a way for you to get what you want, only you just don’t know what it is? Recognize that just because you can’t see a path, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Allow yourself to fantasize (visualize) you already having what you want and how that would feel. This step ensures that you won’t shut down the energy flow you’re creating.
Step 4 – Eliminate the stressors to the best of your ability. And yes, it’s ok to start small. ANY action will bring relief. For example, you may have the realization that you have to quit your job, but that’s just not an option right now. In fact, going to an interview scares you too much for you to consider it right now. That’s ok. But it doesn’t mean that you have to leave everything just as it is. Think of small things you can do or quit doing that will bring you relief.
For example, you may want to start walking after work, which will help move energy through your body, release adrenaline and help you get more clarity on your situation. You may have the realization that you could work from home some of the time, which feels like massive relief. Journaling daily can bring relief and clarity. Making an effort to get outside into nature every weekend can help, or taking more time to go out with friends. Remember that any step you take doesn’t have to fix the whole issue. You’re taking baby steps that will add up quickly to get you out of your self-imposed prison. The more positive energy you activate, the better you’ll feel (i.e. less fear), and the easier it will be to receive the big solution (new, awesome job). Oh, and don’t underestimate the impact that TV and the media can have on your life. Consider cutting out both, even for a while, and see what happens.
Step 5 – Set boundaries. Most problems with this type of anxiety comes from not setting boundaries. If you’re doing more for other people than yourself, if you’re depleting yourself and not letting others be responsible for their own lives and wellbeing, you’re not going to feel very good. Honor and value yourself at least as much as you honor and value them. Take care of yourself. Stop doing things you don’t want to do (yes, even small changes at first will help you build momentum), and give yourself permission to do what brings relief (like taking a nap, staying home all weekend to recharge, etc.). Recognize these activities as ones that make you feel better (and not as signs that you’re lazy), and know that as you do feel better and better, your relief bringing activities will change. You will become more energetic and social down the line. Right now, just do what you have to do to feel better.
And remember, this is a process. It won’t happen in a day, but these changes will add up, and often quickly. You’ll feel better and better and you’ll be taking actions in small, manageable steps, without becoming overwhelmed.
Fear of the future
Anxiety caused by fear of the future is actually easier to address.
Step 1 – First (always), you’ll want to acknowledge how you feel and what you’re afraid of. You have an expectation that things will go badly somehow. What is it that you’re really worried about? For example, you may be afraid that you’ll be overwhelmed by your schedule this year, that you won’t have any fun, and that you won’t succeed at acting. If you need help figuring out what you’re afraid of, just freely visualize your future and see what your mind shows you. Notice what’s going wrong. That’s what you’re focusing on.
Step 2 – Figure out what you want instead. Again, don’t worry about HOW you might get what you want. See yourself having fun at school, enjoying your classes and easily handling the study load. If that vision feels weird, don’t worry about it. This is simply a sign that you haven’t been focusing on what you want, and that you have a habit of doing the opposite. Keep visualizing and you’ll feel better soon. The more you practice this vision, the easier it will get and the better you’ll feel. Your anxiety is caused by your regular focus on what you don’t want. You’ll want to give your new vision enough air time to negate the old story. The same goes for the goal of acting. See yourself already successful and get into the feeling of it. Don’t worry about how that came about, but choose to believe that it WILL happen.
Step 3 – ASSUME that what is happening now is actually taking you closer to what you want, even if it’s not apparent how that might happen. For example, you may not have gotten the classes you wanted, but why not choose to take that as a good thing? Perhaps the classes you did get will be much more fun. Maybe the professors will be much more interesting. Assume that the new schedule will actually be BETTER for you somehow, and look forward to figuring out just how that is. Again, you may need to practice this stance for a bit before it becomes more natural. But this is actually a great perspective to hold when anything happens. It keeps you open to receiving what you want. Also, everything IS always happening FOR you, but you have to be willing to see it as such.
Step 4 – Follow the bread crumbs. As you continue to line up with the energy of what you want, opportunities to take inspired action will open up. Follow them. If you hear of a play that you want to go to, go. Even if you can’t find anyone to go with you. Allow the path to what you want to line up, and when it does, don’t just sit there and ignore it. This will not only get even more energy going in the direction of what you want, but it will actually make you feel more in control and more hopeful that what you want is actually on its way.
Choose to believe that you can get what you want, that you are always being led to it (because you totally are!), and that everything that happens to you is in support of that somehow. In other words, create an open and positive expectation to replace the negative expectation that’s been causing your fear.
Anxiety, at its core, is a message that what you are focusing on, on a very regular basis, is not serving you. It can also be a sign that you are holding yourself in a situation that doesn’t feel good for some reason that seems valid, but isn’t. If your fear is about the future, the solution is really all about training yourself to focus positively. By doing so, you’re automatically shifting all the underlying beliefs, such as unworthiness (if you see yourself getting what you want, the worthiness is implied).
If you have general anxiety, you’ll have to gently dig a bit deeper. The fear is still caused by your focus on things that aren’t serving you, but it’s never just one belief. You’ll want to incrementally soothe yourself and eliminate stressors from your life. You’ll want to learn to set boundaries, be kinder to yourself, and honor what you actually want, instead of just taking care of others at your expense. As you step more and more into your power, you’ll find your anxiety dissipating.
I can tell you from personal experience that this works. I did, for a time, have panic attacks on a fairly regular basis. My general anxiety set point was so high that it took very little to tip me over the edge. After doing some conscious work on myself, the attacks stopped and my anxiety decreased. Then one day, I noticed that even something scary (like someone jumping out at me), didn’t have the same effect on me. My set point had decreased so much that it actually took A LOT to get my body to have an adrenaline response. I was Zen as could be, which allowed me to react to ANY stressor in a much calmer manner. Now, fear no longer feels like anxiety, but much more like reluctance. I’m so far from the edge, it would take actual physical danger to tip me over it (which is how it’s supposed to be). In other words, my adrenal glands rarely get a workout anymore. And I’ve seen the same results in people I’ve worked with.
Taking a holistic approach to anxiety may seem like it’s more work, and it does take some time, but ultimately, it’s worth it. It is possible to release anxiety for good.
Have you overcome anxiety? Why not share your own experiences and techniques in the comments!