Anxiety is a function that is built into the human nervous system, for better or for worse. Understanding that it is natural (though seldom logical, and almost never comfortable) allows space for questions such as, “What would it feel like to fully accept anxiety when it is present?” “If I stopped fighting, what would happen?” “Can I be fully present during the experience of anxiety?” If you have a strong reaction to these questions, remember that sentiment, and check to see if it still feels true at the end of this blog.
I am far from the first one to pose these kinds of questions. Let’s examine a story from about two millennia ago. What follows is my own paraphrasing of an old teaching parable that I believe speaks volumes to the questions at hand (remember that parables are intended to be metaphorical, not literal):
A king, departing for travel, tells his attendants to take care of his throne in his absence. Not long after he departs, a demon enters the castle and sits down right on the king’s throne. The attendants are horrified, and in trying to uphold their obligation, they attempt to get rid of the demon. They try yelling, fighting, screaming, pushing, bribing, ignoring, and every method they can think of to force this demon out of the throne. With each attempt he simply grows larger and stronger, until he is so massive and imposing that the attendants feel hopeless and give up, fleeing to another part of the castle.
When the king returns from his travels, the attendants relay to him what is waiting on his throne, explaining that they have exhausted every conceivable option for getting rid of the demon. Being a wise and experienced king, he smiles and enters the castle. “Hello demon!” he exclaims, and to the shock of the attendants, the demon begins to shrink. “It looks like you’re enjoying my throne. Feel free to stay a little longer,” the king adds, and the demon shrinks further. “Would you like a cup of tea while you’re here?” he asks, as the demon continues to shrink. With each bit of kind and skillful attention that the king pays to the demon he continues to diminish until he ceases to exist altogether.
Dr. Christine Padesky from the Center for Cognitive Therapy states that anxiety is typically described as an overestimation of danger, and an underestimation of resources. She asserts therapy often focuses too heavily on the overestimation of danger, but the underestimation of resources can be a much more powerful area to explore. Facing anxiety and fear with the right skillset and guidance brings about long-term change. If someone believes they do not possess the resources to rise above anxiety, it is only because they have not yet uncovered them.
People often treat anxiety like a demon, attempting to get rid of it by pushing, fighting, ignoring, and suppressing. Just as in the parable, this tends to have the opposite effect. CBT teaches us that we must first learn to be aware of our thoughts and feelings, and this means we can no longer ignore or suppress them; such defenses only reinforce the cycle of anxiety and phobia.
Social anxiety is a great example of this. In its early stages it typically starts out as mild unease before it develops into anxiety and phobia. One of the ways this progression happens is through safety behaviors. An example of a safety behavior might be avoiding all parties because they provoke anxiety. Each time a party is avoided, it further reinforces the assumptions and beliefs that a person holds about their own social capacities. What was once a slightly uncomfortable experience eventually becomes panic-inducing.
Anxiety, like any feeling, can trick us into believing it is static, but in CBT we come to learn that it is actually a constantly changing series of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In mindfulness practice we spend time getting to know the intricacies of every experience, and we see that even intense panic is changing from moment to moment and is not a solid piece of us, but an impermanent sensory and psychological experience that can happen to anyone.
When anxiety evolves from something that occurs once in a while into an issue that greatly impedes someone’s life, it is often the case that the relationship with the anxiety itself has become worse than the triggers that produced the anxiety in the first place. Thoughts can seem so disturbing, feelings so distressing, and bodily sensations so uncomfortable that they are grouped into a blanket experience (dubbed anxiety), and demonized.
It is common in cases of social anxiety to have thoughts such as, “oh no – what if everyone sees how anxious I am and they reject me?” This thought only serves to produce more anxiety, increasing physiological symptoms, which trigger more thoughts, creating a feedback loop. This loop might continue along this path, or it may shift to thoughts about the symptoms themselves, such as “Something is definitely wrong with me,” or “I hate these feelings, I can’t stand it any longer.” These types of thoughts are the mental equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire. They give anxiety all the fuel it needs to continue unrestrained. The end result can feel like an all-out-war in the mind.
If we step back to the parable for a moment, we may recall that fighting the “demon” only helps it grow; the solution lies in befriending it. While not an easy or comfortable option, it is the greatest long-term solution to anxiety. The various thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that make up anxiety can be most effectively dealt with if they are experienced with mindfulness and compassion, at which point the activating cycle will be interrupted and the fuel source dissipated. Without a fuel source, anxiety becomes just an occasional series of sensations that arise and pass without causing much suffering. This is especially true when done in a safe space with a therapist.
Author: Mike Comparetto, NSAC New York City
Director: Noah Clyman, LCSW-R, ACT
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