Anxiety is the threat that something we care about is at risk, and the motivation to protect it.
Anxiety about your feelings is something else, and a feeling few can easily identify. Most of us understand that anxiety can strike when our health, loved ones, or security are at risk. But how many of us notice when we get anxious about our own emotional, or physical, experience?
Anxiety can lurk in the shadows of almost ever uncomfortable emotion, whispering to us that we won’t be able to handle it, or really don’t want to. Churning a resistance that is hurting us cope.
Anxiety about your feelings escalates them.
Anxiety added to any uncomfortable emotion escalates our experience. Not sure you can handle the anxiety you are feeling? You might start to panic (Anxiety + Anxiety = Panic). Not sure you can handle a conflict persisting? Chances are, you will start to feel anger. (Conflict + Anxiety = Anger). Add anxiety to any uncomfortable emotion, and you will feel it more intensely.
When we allow ourselves to believe we can’t handle something, we generate a threat response that mixes with whatever we are feeling to make it worse. Worrying about worry can flash anxiety into panic. But anxiety mixed with other negative emotions can worsen them as well.
Our attitude and thoughts about our experience are powerful, and can impact how we experience something and how it affects us.
Here are two key ways to ditch anxiety’s escalation:
- Label emotions: Indeed, how we label our emotions both defines our experience of them, and helps us control them.
- Believe anxiety is safe so that it will be: In a large scale study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that our perception of stress mattered more than how much stress we felt when it came to its health effects. People who did not believe stress was harmful suffered less and lived longer than those who believed stress was harmful, even when they experienced less stress. How we think about our experience matters.
Research has never been clearer about how much we impact our own emotional experience. When we fear our emotions, we allow our experience to activate our threat response that confuses and worsens our experience.
The key is that without anxiety and dread, our emotions can be a whole lot more tolerable, and more useful. Even less complicated. If we want to be able to understand and use our emotions productively, we have to be able to face them, even lean into them, to do it. The great news here is that facing and naming our feelings help us cope with them.
Giving into our fears pushes us away from the solution, and undermines our strength.
We can always tolerate our experiences, even if we may not want to.
Next time you are feeling something really powerful, ask yourself how you can remove the threat, and embrace your experience. Instead of thinking you can’t handle something, acknowledge that you may not want to, but will.
You’ll be surprised how effective this small tweak can be in deescalating whatever emotion has gotten hijacked by your threat response.