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What Is Your Anxiety Trying to Tell You?

Are you feeling anxious because you're about to do something brave—or stupid?

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Anxiety, or fear, is not something to be conquered or eliminated—or even tackled, for that matter. Instead, we may need to pay close attention to its message.

Most of us experience fear as a kind of stop sign or flashing red light that warns: “Danger! Do not enter!” But we may need to decode that signal and consider what it’s trying to convey. What is the actual nature of the danger? Is it past or present, real or imagined? Are we feeling anxious because we are boldly charting new territory, or because we’re about to do something stupid?

Sometimes, we feel a stab of fear or a wave of anxiety, because our unconscious is warning us that we’re truly off track. Perhaps we shouldn’t send that angry e-mail or buy that adorable “fixer-upper” house. Maybe we shouldn’t rush into a particular job, conversation, trip, marriage, or divorce. In such cases, fear can operate as a wise protector, one we need to honor and respect.

Yet if fear were always a legitimate warning signal, we might never show up for a doctor’s appointment, speak up when we feel passionate about something, or leave a dead-end relationship. There are times when we need to push past our dread and resolve, with our hearts pounding in our chests, to act.

At still other times, we may need to identify the actual sources of fear, past or present, that may be obscured from our view. For example, the anxiety that washes over you when you contemplate confronting your spouse may mask an underlying, ancient terror of speaking up to your father when you were a child.

Fear is a message—sometimes helpful, sometimes not—but often conveying critical information about our beliefs, our needs, and our relationship to the world around us.

There is one final kind of fear we need to decode, the fear we don’t feel at all (at least, not consciously). When we can’t fully face our anxiety and clarify its sources, we tend to act it out instead—attacking a colleague, nagging our child for the 12th time, or working all weekend on a project that was good enough on Friday afternoon—all the while convincing ourselves that these responses are totally rational and warranted.

When anxiety is chronically high, it leads to more serious outcomes, such as greed, bigotry, scapegoating, violence, and other forms of cruelty. In these anxious times, on both the personal and political fronts, ideas are embraced and decisions are made not on the basis of clear thinking that considers both history and the future, but rather on the basis of hearts filled with fear.

We owe it to ourselves and to others to learn how to recognize behaviors that reflect and escalate anxiety—and, as I say in my book The Dance of Fear, to manage our own anxiety so it doesn’t get played out in hurtful ways.

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