There’s no question that anxiety can feel awful. It can easily make people feel overwhelmed, or like they’re not doing well enough, or like something terrible is going to happen.
“I got so scared the other night that my boyfriend was seeing someone else that I called him every two minutes. I had to know.”
“My daughter went into New York for a job interview and by the time she called me I was so worried that I started yelling. I don’t know why — it’s just what I do when I’m scared, I get angry.”
“Objectively, I know I’m doing well at work. I just got a promotion and a big raise. But when I get a new project, I almost can’t give myself time to think; I have to jump right into it or I get myself so worked up that I can’t do anything.”
I hear people say things like that daily and I can wholly sympathize. But it’s important to note that it’s not the anxiety that’s problematic, it’s people’s responses to it.
You may think that’s a foolish distinction. It certainly would seem irrelevant at the moment that someone is busy dialing the same number for the twentieth time, or yelling at whoever didn’t call them when they were worried, or keeping themselves too busy to think even though they are a perfectly fine thinker.
But when you’re not in a whipped up anxious state, consider that although it’s not easy, most people can learn to stand strong feelings and react constructively. It often makes them feel stronger, and more confident, just as learning to swim in powerful currents can add to a person’s sense of prowess, and excitement.
Anxiety, like fear, sadness, or joy, is, after all. only a feeling. But the word only is not meant to connote that it’s not important. It is important but anxiety often does not mean what people take it to mean: it doesn’t mean that anything awful is going to happen. What it usually “means” is that a person feels uncertain, wants some result, and does not have as much control as he or she would like.
The feeling goes along with bodily sensations, different in strength and kind in different people. Some people sweat, others get cold, some hold their breath, others hyper ventilate; often people’s thoughts race leading them to imagine one thing after another that could happen.
From working with people, I’ve come to think that there is something like an emotional muscle that can be slowly strengthened. Of course, it is not one muscle but oddly enough when a person becomes more tolerant of any one strong feeling, such as anxiety, his or her ability to feel other things including what we call “good” feelings also increases.
Again, there’s an analogy to swimming. A good pool swimmer may not like lakes or the ocean but will likely swim better in them than someone who has convinced her/himself that the water is too dangerous to do anything but wade.
I find myself coming back to ideas like this again and again because I feel that as a culture, often including the mental health culture, we diminish people’s strength and limit the richness of our lives by often viewing feelings as illnesses.