Anxiety Is a Mean Trickster

Whatever your perspective on anxiety, one thing is certain.

Posted Feb 17, 2010

Anxiety is a mean trickster. It signals you to pay attention, but it also turns your brain to oatmeal, narrows and rigidifies your focus, and obscures the real issues from view. Anxiety tricks you out of the "now" as you obsessively replay and regret the past and worry about the future. It tricks you into losing sight of your competence and your capacity for love, creativity and joy. It tricks you into believing that you are lesser and smaller than you really are. Anxiety interferes with self-regard and self-respect, the foundation on which all else rests.

It makes no difference whether you view your anxiety as a product of your genes, faulty brain circuitry, early trauma, current stress, world events, or the moon and stars and grace.

Whatever your perspective, one thing is certain:

Anxiety can make you feel dreadful about yourself. It can impede your capacity to think. It can dig a big negative groove in your brain and make it impossible for you to hang on to a positive thought for more than five seconds. It can affect your body in ways that can feel crippling.

When anxiety gets really bad, prepare to shake, hyperventilate, feel nauseous, throw up, get dizzy, sweaty, antsy, jittery, tense, irritable, agitated or otherwise hyper-aroused. You may have difficulty swallowing and feel a constant lump in your throat. In bed at night, you may grind your teeth and jerk your legs like an overcaffeinated marionette. You may breathe too rapidly, hold your breath, or feel like you might stop breathing entirely if you don't force yourself to inhale and exhale. You may call 911 convinced that you are having a heart attack-or that you are losing control and going crazy. You may feel numb, faint, physically immobilized, exhausted, detached from your body, and, at the same time, unbearably stuck in it.

What harms you is not the dreadful way that anxiety feels in the body, whether it's moderate agitation or a full-blown panic attack. We are all capable of managing the most anguishing physical sensations when we know what is happening to us, when we understand that what is happening is frightening but not really dangerous, when we know we won't die from it, and when we know that eventually the feelings will subside.

But when we develop a fear of fear itself, we're lost. Certain that we "can't stand" to feel this way, we try hiding out from fear, running from it full speed, or fighting it off with a big stick. Doing any of these things only makes fear grow bigger and stronger-and makes us feel smaller and weaker.

The more you try to make fear go away (an impossible dream), rather than learning to function with it, the worse you will feel about yourself. You will let fear stop you from doing what you need to do. You will mistakenly see yourself as a weak and impaired individual, rather than as a strong, competent person who happens to have an overactive fear response.