For the Anxious Heart
How to get to and heal the root of the problem.
Posted Jan 06, 2019
Anxiety can often lie around in the nether regions of the psyche for years before being detected in the conscious experience. We can cope with that kind of anxiety by developing certain habits or routines that seem to keep it in those nether regions. People can develop habits like biting nails, chewing tongues, anxious cleaning, obsessive checking, etc, or routines, like overworking, oversleeping, overeating, over-drinking, over-smoking, etc. When we are really, really good at these habits and routines, we don’t really notice how anxious we are.
But if and when one of these habits or routines fail, or if we work really hard at uncovering what we mask, we can encounter deep and uncomfortable anxiety, anxiety that might manifest in any of the following ways: deep, profound fear of all kinds of things, even all of life; physical shaking; obsessive thinking; ruminating; profound worry; all kinds of irrational thoughts and connections; paranoia; irrationally connecting dots of life that don’t belong together at all; panic attacks; etc.
The question then becomes how do we begin the process of soothing the anxious heart in healthy ways that really work? First, we need to understand that some level of anxiety is normal for the living experience. We get anxious to some degree, for example, when we have to perform in front of others, or when we are late to an important event. But normal anxiety comes and goes as we walk through these life events. The kind of anxiety I’m talking about is the kind that lasts throughout a day or several days in a row and may or may not have an external source, or, the external source is imagined to have much greater power than it really has.
This kind of anxiety is meant to be contained. It is not meant to be chased away as if it is evil, sick, twisted or otherwise bad. But that is often how we think of it. We think that we should get into a battle with it to force it to say “Uncle” and go slinking out the back door of our psyche. Rather, it is meant to be contained, as you would cradle a frightened child who is quivering in your arms.
One might start with a conversation with anxiety. Not one where you fuss at it and tell it to go away, but rather one in which you try to understand it and allow it room to explain itself. It’s trying to tell you something about something unresolved in your psyche. So, for example, if you grew up in a home where there was fairly constant punishment, emotional abandonment and/or even physical abuse but you’ve gone years without noticing any significant anxiety, it can erupt later in life while you are in therapy. It begins to tell you how afraid, how alone, how bewildered you were during those years of trauma. It has come to help you love, soothe and heal those old unresolved feelings and issues. It wants you to now become conscious of that which you have held prisoner in the unconscious all these years.
So, you talk to it. You ask it how it came to be and it begins over time to tell you that this is how you felt as a kid, and you never knew it before. You begin to put the pieces together and come to understand that that anxiety is really just the scared little kid in you, trying to ask for your protection, for your love, for your comfort. You begin to develop self-empathy—in which you come to understand and love that little kid you once were and on some level still are. Whereas if all you do is tell it to go away, you are just doing to it what your parents did to you as a kid.
Now you can learn to self-soothe. What comforts you? Is it music? Dance? Walking? Running? Working out? Hiking? Biking? Being out in nature? Sitting by the fireplace? Playing a musical instrument? Meditation? Yoga? Being near water? Reading a book? What works to really help you feel some modicum of peace? What have you tried that doesn’t work? It will be experimental, this journey into self-soothing. Try something you think you might like. If it works, write it down. It will be number one on your list of 10 new self-soothing skills that you can develop. As you build that list you will begin to trust yourself to take really good care of you, and that anxious kid inside of you will begin to believe you.
Now you can start dealing with those thoughts that enable and build anxiety within you. Make a list of your most frightening thoughts. Then on the other side of the paper, counter those thoughts with a truer more rational thought. If that doesn’t work you might try playing out the worst-case scenario—what would you do if that happened—then what, and then what, until you get to the place where you can say, “Well, then it would be okay again.” Now you can begin to counter those anxious thoughts as the lies they often are when they come up. Keep working that until you have changed some of the beliefs underlying these thoughts—beliefs like, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m all alone,” “No one really cares enough to help,” “You have to get it exactly right or there will be hell to pay,” “You are selfish if you don’t do what they want all the time,” “There’s punishment waiting right around the corner,” “I’m just waiting for the other shoe to fall,” etc.
Of course, you might also need medication. But don’t rely solely on medications to fix what’s broken in you. Use medication in combination with therapy and the work of therapy to get to the root of the problem and heal it.