Finding Balance Between Healthy and Unhealthy Anxiety

By Concentric Counselor Charles Weiss, LPC

There are 10 seconds left of the clock in the state championship game and your team is down by 2 points.  You have the ball and the fate of the team is in your hands on what will you do next, either pass or take the game winning shot.  Sweat is protruding down your face, your heart is beating a thousand miles a hour, your mind is racing with a million and one different case scenarios on what you should do and then your anxiety starts to take over.  However, you realized that your anxiety has allowed you to think quicker on your feet and make better decisions, because you don’t let it control and consume you.  3, 2, 1 and throw up a prayer of shot from about 35 feet away from the basket, knowing that being vulnerable to your anxiety, you can live with the consequences…  Swish!  Game over and you have just won the state championship for your team.

Anxiety… What is it and what does to mean to us when it begins to take control; do we let it control our consciousness or embrace it as an opportunity of growth and self-discovery?  According to dictionary.com, anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

When outcomes are uncertain to us in which we want to control, but can’t, anxiety can consume our every decision, thought and feeling.  It leads to panic, fear and vulnerability to the unknown, having us over-analyze every decision we make, postulating those “what if” scenarios.  Anxiety can so debilitating to someone when it’s severe and impacts our day-to-day activities.  Plain and simple, anxiety can suck!  Nobody wants to constantly live a life of panic, fear, worry and dread, wondering all the time, “What if?” When you let anxiety take control and inhibit your ability to just be “you”, it becomes unhealthy.

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Is there a way to gain back that control over anxiety before it begins to consume us, crippling our sense of self and being vulnerable to “What if…?”  Anxiety is your body’s indication that something isn’t right, like a built-in warning system indicating that your homeostasis might be out of balance.  When we listen to our body as it talks to us and yes, our body does speak to us, you can begin to prepare and embrace for its impact and figure out how to manage it. Certain symptoms to be mindful of that can alert us when something “isn’t right” and anxiety begins to manifest itself within us, are the following:

·        Racing thoughts

·        Irritability

·        Headaches

·        Nausea/upset stomach

·        Disturbed sleep

·        Muscle tension/tightness

·        Shortness of breath

·        Mind going blank

·        Difficulty concentrating/focusing

·        Fatigued

·        Palpitations

When we are able to listen to these symptoms we experience, then we can to things to keep these symptoms in check before they exacerbate. Taking the time to do a body scan, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises, progressive muscle relaxation techniques can all help keep the heightened level of anxiety at bay.

Can anxiety be healthy?

Anxiety can also be a way to motivate yourself to reach your goals and achievements that you have established.  It can better help prepare yourself to face as well as overcome challenges. When we approach anxiety as a hindrance, it can become unhealthy. You can instead capitalize on it as more of a way to inspire your self-growth and to live a more authentic life.  According to Katharina Star, Ph.D., anxiety is another way people can be more empathetic towards other people’s issues and concerns, and help with how they interact with others. She also stated that individuals who struggle with anxiety are often more cautious thinkers, problem solvers and decision makers because they are often building-in “back-up plans” for when things go wrong. 

Bottom line, anxiety isn’t always bad and unhealthy when individuals experience it, it can be a way people thrive if they are able to recognize it, understand it, and know how to cope and properly channel the healthy aspects of it. People can still live fully authentic lives when experiencing anxiety, it’s when it takes control and we begin to panic, that derails aspects of our lives.

If you are experiencing at least 3 symptoms of anxiety, that have been affecting your ability to function on a day-to-day basis in a variety of settings (i.e.: school, work, home) and those symptoms have been occurring for at least 6 months in which you find it very difficult to control that worry and anxiety, please contact your local mental health provider and schedule an appointment with a professional who can help you learn how to regain control over your anxiety and transform it into a healthier form of anxiety for you. 

Asking for Help - Not Waving but Drowning

By Concentric Counselor Christian Younginer, LPC, NCC

Not Waving but Drowning

By STEVIE SMITH

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought   

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   

(Still the dead one lay moaning)   

I was much too far out all my life   

And not waving but drowning.

I believe this poem verbalizes well a common societal pressure. That is, the need to be happy externally, even if drowning internally. As we go through our day, met with multiple “How’s it going?”, we invariably are trained to answer “fine” or “great”, without the slightest thought. The question we’re left with is: how would anyone know I’m drowning, when I always give them a friendly wave?

Asking for help can be deceptively difficult. Frequently I hear from clients that asking for help shows weakness, or is shameful, or too vulnerable. So, we strengthen our resolve, buckle down, and soldier on at the expense of our wellness and happiness. We become run down, exhausted, and deflated. Imagine a balloon trying to remain the same size, while its air slowly leaks. We receive messages from our families of origin, our employers, and consumer culture that tell us to harden. But the harder we get, the more brittle we become. Rather than naming our need for help, we’re now drowning with work, emotions, schedules, and isolation. 

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Ultimately, this issue of asking for help comes down to a person’s struggle with taking care of themselves. Wellness, self-care, asking for help, boundary setting, etc all live in the same neighborhood: taking care of the self. A former supervisor of mine offered this metaphor:

You board an airplane, take your seat, and the flight attendant begins the safety protocols speech. They get to the section on the oxygen mask. They say, ‘please secure your own mask before attempting to assist anyone else.”

Why is that? Well, you can’t help anyone if you’re dead. The same concept applies here, albeit with less grim consequences. How can we expect to function, let alone help others, when we run ourselves ragged?

To return to the topic at hand, one way of taking care of the self is asking for help. Seeking therapy is a form of this. I often name the courage it takes for a client to find a therapist. As we know, it’s hard to find help for ourselves- especially for our mental health. As if the unfortunate stigma isn’t enough, busy schedules and work demands can get in the way. If therapy is two steps too far for you, there are smaller ways to open ourselves to the help of others.

We don’t have to instantly open up and adopt this idea. Rather we can take smaller steps that feel safer. For example, if we have created a default answer of “fine” when asked “how are you?” by random people, then that may have filtered into closer relationships. Those relationships where it may feel safer saying “Actually, I’m struggling.” So, what if we remove the automatic ‘fine’ from our vocabulary? Rather, when asked by a close friend or family member, “how are you?”, we take that question for what it is: an out-stretched hand to a drowning person.

 I think it is unfair to view this poem as an indictment of those who misread the author’s anguish. Rather, I believe it is a call to stop waving when we’re drowning. To let those looking out for our safety, save us. Only from this place of moaning, cold death does the author finally feel safe saying she was much too far out all of her life. If only we, the onlookers, knew this we could’ve helped.

 It is ok to feel you’re too far out. It is ok to feel like you’re drowning. There are those who want to help us, but only if we let them. When we don’t ask for help, we deny our friends and family the gift of being able to help someone they love.

The Role of Anxiety in Living an Authentic Life

By Concentric Counselor Christian Younginer, LPC, NCC

To be brief, anxiety can suck. The persistent worry of imagined scenarios can plague the mind and exhaust the body. It can manifest as brief periods of pronounced worry, a baseline worry for all things, and even panic attacks. But I would like to offer a perspective that may be overlooked in coping with anxiety. That is, can my anxiety teach me something?

Specifically, can my anxiety teach me how to live an authentic, meaningful life? This question shapes Existential Therapy. At its broadest, existential therapy is the endeavor of understanding one’s existence in a therapeutic setting. This is done via an honest exploration of one’s freedom, choice, responsibility, meaning, and inevitable death. Existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom conceptualizes much of anxiety as death-anxiety (Existential Psychotherapy, p.189). That is, persistent anxiety can be explained as an underlying worry about a life without meaning in the face of approaching death. Death is what allows life to have meaning. If there were no end, then for what should we live? The finiteness of life can motivate, intimidate, and terrify. However, it is this anxiety that can be the canary in the mine of our life.

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As we work, study, sleep, parent, eat, play, drive, and journey through life, meaning and purpose can slip through the cracks. Anxiety can creep in, seeming to have no definable impetus. Often enough the death of a loved one, or a diagnostic medical scare can bring perspective -- wherein we confront our death. But one does not need to wait for such a moment to ask these questions, such as “Why am I here?”, “What does it mean to exist?”, and “What is my purpose?”.

Anxiety can be that canary that alerts us of an inauthentic life. It warns of the finiteness of life, and the importance of living a life with meaning. This often manifests as a vague sensation of “running out of time”. Without meaning, one can find life pointless or trite. The finiteness of life no longer motivates, it terrifies. But if we listen to what our anxiety is telling us, perhaps we can redirect our lives towards meaning.

How does one do this?

An example from philosophy may be of use. In Frederick Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Nietzsche offers the reader an aphorism he titles ‘The Heaviest Burden’. He proceeds to ask the reader: if a demon were to order that you must live this life in eternal recurrence, every moment, detail, pain, and triumph- would you thank him or curse him? (The Gay Science, Aphorism #341). So, do I live my life in such a way that were I to re-live this life on repeat, I would praise the demon with gratitude for the opportunity? Or would this prospect bring about the abysmal dread of re-living a meaningless life? It is this precise idea where anxiety comes into play. Am I experiencing the anxiety and dread of a life not worth re-living?

It is this question that can help steer us towards meaning. Do I live in such a way that were I to re-live this life on repeat, would I be in joyful contentment or in abysmal dread? This is a tough question with which to be confronted. However, we can use this question as a beginning: the moment one begins to ask “does my life have meaning?”. Rather than be frozen by the possible dread this question instills, one can frame this as the moment in which a new life begins. As always, Confucius said it best, “ We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”

Determining WHAT is meaningful is a personal journey that can take time to uncover. But knowing thyself was important to Plato for a reason. It is this existential journey of a human confronted with death, through anxiety, uncovering that which gives their life meaning.

To conclude, yes, anxiety does suck. But as we work to cope with it, let us ask -- What is this anxiety trying to teach me?  Anxiety very well may lead us away from the existential dread of an unexamined life, and instead towards finding a meaningful life worthy of repeating.