What is Anxiety?: Making Friends with the “Fear Spiral”
The Wisdom of President Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated about the political climate in the 1930s that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. At the time, he was making a political statement. Little did he know he was also describing anxiety.
Because one of my specialties is working with those who worry, I have written other blogs about anxiety treatment, how to know when you have anxiety, characteristics of anxious thoughts, and how to manage anxiety. But, I have yet to address the nature of anxiety. So, here goes…
When we get curious about what anxiety actually is, we can recognize that it is not just the fear of something bad happening, no matter how small that thing may be. It is, by nature, fear itself. Let me explain. Take the following example.
We worry we may never measure up to our boss’ expectations or get that promotion. So, we overwork ourselves. Then we take too much on our plate and stress ourselves further. This is followed by asking ourselves “will this be enough?”. Our suspicion is “no” (and, of course we tend to believe the thoughts we have in our heads, right?) so we find ourselves unable to sleep as we run over all of the things we need to do and all of the times that our boss has passed us over for what we feel like we deserve. I call this the “Fear Spiral”. Anxiety about something only breeds more anxiety.
The funny thing is that anxiety is smart. It knows that, even if we know our worries about “What if…” are not logical are or not likely to happen, it still has power over us. Anxiety feels like reality and can be strong in our minds and in our body.
The Good News and The Bad News
So, here’s the good and the bad news. First, the bad news: anxiety IS real. Chronic anxiety even changes the way that the brain functions. Just as with fear, worrying only breeds worrying. But, even when you overcome that thing you were anxious about (e.g. an exam, having a baby, etc.), there will ALWAYS be something else to worry about.
Ironically, this is also the good news. When we recognize that we create our anxiety with our anxious thoughts, we can practice pausing, taking a deep breath, and bringing ourselves back into the present moment to live with what is right here, right now. The more we are mindful about what makes up our anxiety (the fear itself), the more we tend to see over time that our anxiety is made up of nothing substantial. This may (hopefully) cause us to get to the point of saying, “You know what! I have wasted my life being anxious about so many things, very few of which have actually happened. So, I choose to take my life back!”
Overcoming the Fear
Think about the way this “fear spiral” manifests in your own life. When we are 8, we want to be double digits because that’s the cool thing. When we are 10, we want to be 16 because we can drive. But, when we are 16, we want to be 18 because we can get rid of our annoying parents. In college, we tell ourselves we will be less stressed when we don’t have to study anymore but then we get engaged and the stress of planning the wedding is overwhelming. And, I haven’t even gotten to kids or financial responsibilities yet!
Do you see a trend? There will always be something to stress about. But, if we learn to recognize the spiral, stop it before it takes control of our thoughts and actions, and choose to identify what we don’t need to attack out of fear, we can make friends with our fear. Welcome the fears and anxieties as an old friend. Sit with it. It’s not going anywhere, anyway.
I know what you’re thinking: “That sounds great. But, it’s not that easy”. True, addressing the “fear spiral” is not easy. Just like any change, it takes hard work. But, practice exploring new options. What do you have to lose? And, if necessary, work with a professional to help guide you in your journey to making friends with your fear. Sometimes it takes a third party to help us overcome something that feels insurmountable. Starting somewhere is better than never starting at all.
~Ashley Carter Youngblood, LMSW, LMFT, CADC, ADS
Ashley Carter Youngblood is both a Fully-licensed Clinical Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist who has been in the field since 2007. She offers counseling in Kalamazoo, Portage, Mattawan, Battle Creek, Paw Paw, and the surrounding areas of Southwest Michigan. She is passionate about her work with clients, whether it’s providing individual counseling, couples counseling, family therapy, or life coaching. Her specialties include holistic healing/mindfulness, counseling for women, anxiety, couples counseling, and addictions/substance abuse.
I welcome you to contact me or leave any questions or feedback you have about this post. Please keep in mind that the above information is the opinion of an individual, should not be considered medical advice, and is for entertainment/educational purposes only. I write these blogs as an expression of my passion for wellness and with the hope to be able to help as many people as possible. Therefore, I would encourage anyone seeking mental health advice to contact a therapist in your area who can better evaluate your situation and provide you with case-specific information for treatment. Also remember, if you are experiencing an emergency, contact 911 or present yourself to your nearest emergency room.
Thanks for reading.