habitual anxietyRecently I received a question from a reader that relates to this post about something I call “habitual anxiety”.

She wrote: Thank you for this. I am exactly here, at this very moment, and your post is invaluable. I do have a question though. Could you explain a little more about how not to suppress the anxiety while challenging it? I find combining acceptance and challenging thoughts confusing. Thanks!

I think this is a great question. So great in fact that I am tempted to go ask someone else for “the answer”. But unfortunately, I already know that there is no one answer that will fit each individual’s situation when it comes to habitual, or habit-forming, anxiety.

So instead, I will just share what works for me.

I actually have a series of steps I follow when I work with my own anxiety. Roughly, here they are (I’ve never tried to actually write them down before!):

  1. I notice my anxiety and name it – “Aha. I am feeling ‘anxious’.”
  2. I congratulate myself for noticing and naming my emotion correctly.
  3. I say to myself, “I am feeling anxious….and that is okay.” The “okay” part reduces any shame or vulnerability I may be feeling about feeling anxious. It defuses one of my “hot buttons”, which is my belief that I am an anxious person who is weakened by her anxiety.
  4. I remind myself that anxiety is just a feeling like any other – it does not have any meaning other than the one I give it, and it does not define me as a person.
  5. I take some deep breaths. As I breathe in and out, I allow the anxious feelings to bubble up, through and out of me. If I notice myself trying to hold the anxiety in, push it down, control its intensity or ignore it, I refocus on my breath and remind myself that I will be okay – if I let the anxiety out, it is coming out so it can LEAVE. Yahoo!!
  6. I do the deep breathing and feeling part until I am feeling less anxious. Sometimes I need to call my mentor or a friend if I am quite anxious, so I also do that at this point if needed.
  7. Once I feel less anxious, that is when I have an opportunity to work through the issue, memory or whatever else may be causing the anxiety. Trying to work through it while it feels very intense is not productive and can even damage my self-esteem.
  8. At no point do I “challenge” the anxiety, so to speak. I don’t challenge its right to be there or the truth of its presence. Rather, I inquire of it what lesson it has come to teach me. I know that some people like to challenge tough emotions head-on but that actually doesn’t work for me so I can’t speak to that. For me, it just makes the emotion that much stronger and more bullheaded about sticking around and making me miserable. Trying to welcome it as a necessary visitor for as-yet-to-be-determined reasons works better for me.
  9. I then try to determine what “type” of anxiety it is. More on that in the rest of this post….

So these are the basic steps I tend to follow when addressing my own anxious feelings. I don’t always do all nine, and I don’t always do them exactly in order, but I have done all of them in the past and they are each helpful in a different way.

As well, these days I often follow the meditation technique I described in my earlier post on this topic and that helps greatly.

Next, I try to determine what type of anxiety it is.

Knowing more about why it is arising and what type it is can be helpful as I begin to dialogue with the anxious feelings, learn from them and hopefully find a solution to ease them in the present and future.

In this, first I have to remind myself that it is not always important to know why the anxiety is occurring – sometimes, like life, anxiety “just happens”. So if I run through the following list of types of anxiety I have previously identified within myself and nothing seems to fit, it is probably just anxiety-anxiety. It will likely pass and go on about its business if I am intentional about allowing it to, and then it will be gone.

As far as identifying a specific type of anxiety, I usually start with a guess of biological anxiety. While I am on medication for depression and anxiety, the underlying biology that has me hot-wired as an anxious person is still there and can still increase during certain moments, especially if I already have existing stress about other things present in my life at the same time.

The anxiety might also be hormonal anxiety – whether we are male or female, hormonal fluctuations do occur periodically, and these can cause changes in mood and emotion. So I can look at where I am in my monthly cycle and see if there are any visible patterns to help me put a “face with a name” so to speak.

It could also be environmental anxiety. There are some situations – such as going to a mall around the holidays – when the cumulative stress of many others just rubs off on me. If I am in a particularly busy or high traffic environment, it is not unusual for my anxiety level to go up slightly.

Or it might be specific anxiety, which of course is anxiety about something specific – for instance, a relationship I have with someone, something at work, my health or another issue. I try to notice here whether my anxiety feels in proportion to the specific event it feels linked to – like, would I assume any human being might have a certain level of anxiety if such-and-so happened to be happening in their life? If my answer is yes, the anxiety is probably situational.

If the anxiety feels out of proportion with the specific present-day event it feels linked to – if I am crazy-anxious and the reason, even to my anxious eyes, appears relatively minor – then it is probably what I call legacy anxiety. Legacy anxiety, for me, is anxiety that has been allowed to accumulate within me unexpressed from past similar situations I haven’t handled that well. So now, if the anxiety is triggered yet again in a new but similar situation, it is my opportunity to feel and express old pent-up anxiety as well so I can be free of it. While this is not a pleasant experience by any stretch of the imagination, it can be an exciting opportunity as well if recognized in time. Once I have felt and exhumed legacy anxiety, I often don’t have such high anxiety about future similar events that may occur.

So I hope this answers my reader’s question at least in part – and thank you for asking! I find that it is always great to ask others about how they handle anxiety and what works best because that is how we learn new techniques to try that might be great for us as well.

Today’s Takeaway: What works best for you to work with your anxiety and find calm again?

Anxious young man photo available from Shutterstock