“It's okay not to be okay all the time.” ~Unknown
I never thought of myself as an anxious person.
But here I was again, staring at a computer screen in my office, so stressed I could barely type. I’d been throwing myself into work and I had crashed—hard.
And this wasn’t the first time.
Unfortunately, our mental image of who we think we are and who we actually are don’t always match up. But part of being human is that we learn to live with that, we embrace the struggle, and we grow.
Over the last five years I’ve had a number periods of high anxiety, often triggered by work-related stress. In that time I’ve realized that my beliefs about anxiety were unhelpful, and they often worsened the experience.
When I was able to let go of the firm grip I had on these ideas, I found that when anxiety came to visit, it didn’t stay around as long as it used to.
Here are five beliefs about anxiety that can make you even more anxious. If you recognize them in yourself, I hope you can let them go when they arise.
1. It’s not normal (or okay) to have anxiety.
When you first start to notice your anxiety, you might think it’s not normal. The feelings in your body will be so intense that when you look around at other people, who on the surface look so calm, you won't be able to believe that what’s happening to you might happening to them.
But I want you to know something. You are not alone.
Though everyone’s experience will be different, there are dozens of people you’ll come into contact with daily who have probably had similar feelings.
That guy who gave you your coffee this morning, he had a panic attack before work. The girl next to you at the bus stop, she’s trying to calm herself down right now. The boss who yelled at your coworker an hour ago, he’s anxious that his own boss is breathing down his neck.
Anxiety is common.
Holding onto the (false) belief that what’re you’re experiencing isn’t normal only intensifies the problem by making you feel separate from everyone else around you. It keeps you in your head where the question “Why is this happening to me?” may circle round and round without ever finding a good enough answer.
2. I need to get over my anxiety in X weeks, months, years.
Putting strict deadlines on when you want to completely rid yourself of anxiety is never useful. But I used to do this all the time.
The role that anxiety is going to play in your life isn’t predictable—you just can’t know. Telling yourself that you must overcome it in a certain amount of time is just going to feed it. Once you can truly learn to accept that you don’t know when or for how long it will come to visit, you’ll notice it does so a lot less often!
3. I can use my anxiety as a motivational tool.
One common way we often justify our anxiety is through the cliché “I work best under pressure,” but what we’re usually doing is placing an unnecessary amount of stress on our bodies and brains.
In the long term, this can leave us drained of the necessary energy to prevent and ward off anxious thoughts. When you experience stress, don’t focus on doing more. Just ride it out, let it pass, and try to be productive from a place of relative calm.
4. The magic bullet cure for my anxiety is out there somewhere.
Overcoming anxiety is a process and holding onto the idea that you’re just one more book, course, or technique away from the ultimate cure will inevitably lead to disappointment, and typically more anxiety.
Take it day by day and relish in the small victories, and over time you’ll make progressive but sustainable changes in the way you handle your nerves.
5. Anxiety is all in my head.
This is completely false, and an unhelpful way to look at anxiety. It’s an issue with your nervous system, so it’s just as much in your body as it is in your head.
Trying to think or rationalize your way out of panic can often be a losing battle. By seeing the mind and body as connected, and both as home to your anxiety, you can develop more skillful control over your thoughts and feelings and not get caught up in a maze of worry.
If you don’t already have a movement related practice, something like yoga, Qigong or Tai Chi can be really useful for improving your ability to calm your body.
I’m not yet completely anxiety free, but every year I cope with it better and better.
Make small steps every day, congratulate yourself on the little wins, and remember that you are not alone!