How Emotions are key to understanding our anxiety
Our emotions are one of four key areas in our lives that affect how we manage anxiety. Our emotions, thoughts/beliefs, physical bodies and our behaviours. Each has an impact on the other and they all are crucial to understanding how we get anxious.
The term Anxiety is often bandied about these days like is the common cold doing the rounds. Although every year it probably effects as many people as the seasonal flu, it is not some virus with an external origin that comes and infects us.
It is a personal and internal phenomenon. It is a by product of internal system failure within us. One that can seem unexplained like something that has infected us. But I assure everyone reading this that while anxiety and hysteria may be in the ether of this world… it is events and reactions in our internal world that lead to anxiety.
I have previously talked about anxiety being our bodies reaction to things that we don’t like. We are evolutionarily conditioned to react to danger. The catch is that the bench mark for danger is set by each of us individually and can vary wildly from person to person depending our personal experiences. Like beauty, danger is in the eye of the beholder.
Fear the feeling:
This is where things can get a little complicated. A lot of anxiety can be triggered by our fear of having to face feelings. But wait I hear people say, my anxiety is about public speaking, forgetting things or leaving the house, etc., not about my feelings?
Think again. Yes, the trigger for the anxiety is the proposed action (speaking, leaving the house, dealing with something, etc.), yet what our nervous system reacts to is not just the situation. It is the feelings that the situation brings up in us.
For an accomplished public speaker giving a talk they experience no feelings of inferiority or fear. For someone else, the same situation, even if they are an expert in their field, it can evoke a flood of emotions.
The emotions or the threat of them causes the system to panic. This is because either we consciously feel we cannot handle the feelings, or they unconsciously threaten us too much. The emotions of being exposed also induce panic as we feel vulnerable, raw and open to attack.
Reaction to the vulnerability:
Our bodies react to our emotion/feeling the same way a vulnerable animal would react wandering into a den of lions. However, with anxiety we don’t fear a physical threat we fear the feeling that is going to come up.
We feel that the feeling is wrong or makes us vulnerable therefore we get anxious. It could be embarrassment, exposure, loneliness, sadness, anger, jealousy, fear or whatever. If we have told ourselves it is not ok to feel like this then anxiety will follow.
Perhaps we have been avoiding these feelings all our life or perhaps they bring us shame to even have them. Perhaps we don’t want to show our emotions in front of others, because of how that makes us feel
Perhaps our beliefs that our emotions are bad runs so deep it is unconscious. This is when we get the anxiety and we can’t say what causes it.
For many of us when were young all our feelings weren’t permitted. It just wasn’t safe to let them all out at home, at school or wherever. We learned to keep them under wraps because to show them would be unsafe.
For some children feelings evoked in bad situations were so strong that they needed to supress them and bottle them to stop being overwhelmed. When we are kids we armour and protect ourselves to survive horrendous situations.
This can go in many ways. Maybe suffering abuse, we needed to cut off feeling to survive. Perhaps many of us felt extreme anger in childhood but knew that to express it would be dangerous, so we supressed it.
Maybe in others the unpredictability of our early lives meant that we dealt with a lot of fear of what is going to happen. Now as adults any trace of these bodily emotions may bring anxiety and lots of nervous thinking and energy. That something is wrong going wrong here feeling.
Many of us as adults we remain armoured and frozen. Then when we get anxious we don’t understand why.
Reclaiming Unconscious Feelings:
If our uncomfortable feelings have the power to drive our anxiety, then we need to get more of a handle on how we feel.
Firstly, remember that emotions are temporary. They come as a tightening and releasing within us. They ripple up in us but if we let them out they will pass.
They are the waves that make us human, but we are not always supported when we are small in handling them. Many of us learn to switch them off by holding them in becoming ridged.
We can block our emotions at many points in our bodies and will always fear them unless we manage to let go into them a bit.
Even the worse feelings are only temporary. Shame, disgust, guilt, grief, sadness, loneliness they are only temporary visitors that correspond with how things are impacting us. If read properly they are a beautiful guide telling us who we really are, our sensitivities.
Increasing comfort with those emotions will surely help us be less triggered by them. When an emotion comes accept and feel it.
Breathe deeply into the belly and ground feet on the floor. Emotions like a charge of electricity need to be grounded to be discharged. Ten minutes of letting the emotion do its thing is way better than always swallowing them.
Minding the little one who had to be brave:
This is a core thing I try to teach clients who have been abused, neglected or abandoned. The little one inside them needed to hold a lot of unimaginably hard and confusing feelings. This is pertinent for all of us because everyone of us will have had experiences where how we felt was made not okay. Even little things affect kids in this way. No one is immune.
At some level we all have different levels of comfort with different emotions. Some of us who were hurt managed so well that the feelings are now always kept at arm’s length (many people numb feelings with drink, drugs, food and sex as a means of not feeling them).
Remember that at the age when numbing and shutting down happened it was not safe to experience the emotion. No adult was there to protect us or to tell us it is going to be okay.
It may still feel scary to this day but remember anyone reading this that we do have a wise, compassionate, interested, caring adult now: ourselves!
If things seem scary for part of us, imagine we are talking to someone else’s child. Do we react angrily to that child? Do we snap or judge? To we panic when a child cries, or scream for them to stop? No, most people’s reaction would be to comfort and support.
Going easy on and minding ourselves is more than just something counsellors say to us leaving at the door. It is fundamental because we go so hard on ourselves. Maybe we don’t have compassion for ourselves but really two wrongs don’t make a right.
Our little selves committed no crime and if they suffered at some stage they don’t deserve to be punished twice for not being over it.
I often recommend clients to go to the cinema alone, treat themselves to ice cream, hug and soothe themselves and be nice to the little one inside them. That self soothing is the best comfort you can get, plus it’s a tonic for anxiety.
Take away pointS:
Running away from temporary feelings leads to permanent anxiety until we learn to tolerate how we feel! We all dislike certain emotions, but they won’t kill us. Trying to say ahead of them and getting anxious about them is long term far worse, I promise!
Thoughts and beliefs are crucial in terms of how we process emotions and in the next blog I am going to talk about how beliefs are key in terms of our anxiety.
Therapy is a great way to get to the bottom of these questions and at Anxiety Ireland, we have a team of accredited psychotherapists who work helping thousands of people with anxiety every year.
If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics. We are always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948.
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Team Anxiety Ireland
Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going nowhere fast, it’s ok to step off.