These days, there’s a lot to be anxious about. Many of us feel more anxious than ever, whether it’s losing our loved ones or experiencing financial stress. A survey of over 3,000 adults in 2021 found that 47% felt anxious and 57% said they were worried about the future. 54% also said they overate and consumed alcohol in order to alleviate their emotional pain.
Anyone who’s experienced anxiety knows the distress it can bring. This stifling emotion can cause a racing heart and headache, as well as a knotty stomach. We often interpret these feelings as dangerous signs. Social anxiety might be mistaken for evidence. Everyone dislikes us or believe performance anxiety means we’re actually impostors.
Although anxiety can be very overwhelming, there are some positives. Her new book is available here A good anxiety, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki repositions anxiety as a potentially positive force in our lives that can open the door to self-care and resilience—two things that inoculate us from stress. Social jitters could be an indicator to seek out support. Performance woes may be an indication to work harder or practice power poses for a while. It is possible to make anxiety work for our psychological health by realizing that it can serve as a positive messenger.
From this perspective, anxiety isn’t a symptom we solely manage with medication or behavioral therapies (even though research shows these treatments work); it’s also a cue to search for its underlying cause. We can begin by asking exploratory questions, much like detectives. For instance, “How does anxiety show up in the body?” “What is it telling us?” and “What core emotions brew beneath our anxiety?” Illuminating anxiety’s relationship to underlying core emotions can lead to lasting change, emotion-focused researchers point out.
The body’s core emotions, such as sadness, anger and fear, and joy and excitement, affect its movement in ways that allow us to survive and thrive. Fear makes it easier to run and anger helps us fight. There is another type of emotion called inhibitive emotions. This category includes anxiety, guilt, shame, and even anger. Understanding the differences between inhibitory and core emotions is key to overcoming anxiety.
Our patients learn from us as emotion-focused educators and therapy professionals. Anxiety is like a fast motor that revs up our brains. Our thoughts and emotions become dangerous threats. When we’re in this amped-up state, anxiety blocks core emotions, making it impossible to sense our emotional needs, let alone use them in ways that help us.
The good news, however, is that we don’t need to remain stuck. It is possible to feel anxious, but this can also be an indicator that it’s time to recognize and understand our core emotions. This will lead to clarity and calm.
There are tools to ease anxiety. These tools will help us not only in this moment, but also for the future.
Accept your anxiety.
When children are flooded with big feelings, adults often tell them to “use their words,” because putting language on anxiety helps dial it down. Researchers call this “affect labeling.” One study found that naming negative emotions calmed down the amygdala, the part of the brain where feelings light up. This causes emotional reactivity to lose its power because the right- and left brains become more connected. Dr. Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, explains in his book. Mindsight
Many of our patients report that they worry about their work and obsess over mistakes. These are both common signs of anxiety. In situations like these, merely saying to yourself, “I feel anxious” can lead to what psychologist Diana Fosha, developer of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy. calls a “click of recognition.” Naming our emotional experience is validating, which permits us to be authentic. In addition, accepting our emotions disarms the need for defense mechanisms—behaviors like overworking, denial and addiction that numb pain but suck up vital energy. Without the need for these Band-Aids, we’re better equipped to use our energy to engage in work and relationships.
Reduce your anxiety.
When you’re anxious, a decisive step is to slow the body down with body-based tools like grounding and deep belly breathing.
When we’re in the throes of anxiety, being told to “take a deep breath” can come across as overly simple or downright aggravating. However, science tells us breathing can slow down anxiety’s engine. Neuroscientist Steven Porges, who developed “polyvagal theory,” says diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which triggers the body’s relaxation response. Researchers say that cortisol and stress hormones are reduced when this occurs, which causes immediate relief.
When a patient tells us they’re worry-filled, we invite them to slow down their nervous system by saying, “Right now, can you give yourself permission to move away from your thoughts and into your body? Pay attention to your soles as your feet touch the ground. Sense the firm ground underneath you.”
Now, it’s time to open your belly and begin deep breathing. We teach, “Take the deepest breath you can and send the air down to the base of your abdomen. Let your belly pop out like a Buddha and try to keep your chest down.” We suggest placing one hand on the chest and the other on the belly to help with this process. Then, we teach them to hold their breath for one beat, then slowly release the breath through pursed lips like they’re blowing on hot soup. To help them relax the most, we coach them to listen to their bodies throughout each breath cycle.
Be curious about your core emotions.
According to Dr. Judson Brewer, a physician and scientist, curiosity can be anxiety’s companion. Defined as the “desire to take in new information,” curiosity can open the mind to possibilities, which helps us search for novel solutions. Researcher Jordan Litman calls this “interest curiosity,” and studies show it can increase motivation and enhance learning. Thus, through curiosity’s lens, we can see anxiety as an invitation to identify our underlying core emotions.
We encourage patients to be compassionate with themselves and not judge them. Next, we ask them to look at their entire body. We then encourage them to notice the areas where anxiety is present. Then, ask them to visualize putting the anxiety aside and noticing what core emotions are they feeling. For example: “Is sadness there?” “Is anger there?” “Is excitement there?”
You may feel more than one of the core emotions, but they don’t always have to be in harmony. We can experience sadness or anger simultaneously. Noticing each core emotion can help us listen to the message they’re sending. Anxiety is always more than just anxiety. It’s never the end of the story; it’s the beginning.
Identify the source of conflict.
Anxiety can be a symptom of a deep inner conflict that’s throwing us into torturous thinking. One example is when a person wants to be home during the holiday season but hates being around their parents. This causes anxiety.
To get out of this bind, it helps to validate each side of the conflict, or as we say in our practice, change the “but.” Doing so negates each opposing side to an “and,” which creates room for both feelings to coexist. We can, for example, validate our need to be with our families and acknowledge the hurtful feelings they evoke. Then we can come up with solutions to deal with their behaviors—such as setting boundaries, which can include saying things like, “Dad, if you continue calling me names, I’ll leave.”
Our dysfunctional society with all its antiquated myths and misconceptions about emotions sends the wrong message. It believes that anxiety is a disease or genetic trait. However, emotion education tools are able to transform this terrifying foe into an amazing teacher. In the end, anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of being human.