“What if you left the stove on,” whispered Anxiety conspiratorially. “What if you left the iron on. Or the door unlocked. What if the house burns down.”
I frowned. “I don’t even use an iron!”
“Yeah but what if… what if your friends don’t like you. They might be talking about it right now. Probably because you drank too much at that party in 2014. Remember? You were so loud. Everyone probably thinks you’re too loud.” While he spoke, Anxiety turned up my heartrate, and increased my muscle tension a few notches. Poked me in the stomach, so the familiar ache came back. “What if you lose your job, too? Imagine. Who knows what the future holds.”
“I’m more likely to lose my job if you don’t leave me alone and let me do it!”
“I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU!” Anxiety huffed. “Don’t worry, we’ll talk about this more tonight, when you’re trying to sleep.”
Anxiety: What it is
Anxiety is the most commonly reported mental health condition in Australia. Characterised by insistent stress, tension, worry, and fear, it may involve intrusive thoughts, non-specific fear, and inability to focus. It may be related to the future or other people, or it may be generalised, attaching itself to whatever is available. It may also involve physical symptoms, such as aches, trembling, increased heartrate, and sleep problems.
Probably not your idea of a good time.
Your body is highly skilled at preparing you for danger, channelling your resources away from non-urgent processes like healing and digestion, and preparing you to kick ass or run like hell. It’s supposed to stop once the sabretooth tiger is gone though. Anxiety is the voice in your ear whispering, “THERE’S a sabretooth tiger! No THERE’S a sabretooth tiger! Oh wait, that might be a sabretooth tiger over there!”
You’ve probably evolved to be highly anxious, because your ancestors were the ones who got away from those predators. The laidback ones who assumed everything was just the wind probably didn’t survive long enough to procreate.
Of course, our normal response to anything unpleasant is to avoid it or make it go away. Self-regulation strategies like eating, drinking, watching TV, or becoming a workaholic may give you short-term relief, but are unlikely to address the problem long term.
Anxiety: A Gestalt approach
A big dark forest.
We can’t go over it,
We can’t go under it,
We’ve got to go through it!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!
(Excerpt from We’re going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen)
Be present with your anxiety, because we’ve got to go through it. Stumble-tripping is fine, as long as you pick yourself up and keep going.
Stop and listen to what the narrative in your head is saying. You may like to voice it out loud, but don’t accept it as factual.
Notice where you feel anxiety in your body, and the sensations you experience. Can you describe it in words?
Awareness is healing in itself, even if you never do anything else.
2. Be here now
No doubt some traumatic things have happened in your past that contribute to today’s anxiety. For sure, there are many things that could go wrong in your future. While you should acknowledge these things as helpful information, don’t get stuck there. Only in the present can you heal the past and plant seeds for a better future.
What can you do right now to heal, process, or let go of some of those past traumas?
What can you do right now to mitigate any real risks in the future?
In this moment, can you accept that the future is unknown, that things may go wrong, and that you’ll be able to deal with them if and when they do?
Can you give yourself some peace, right now?
3. Talk it out
Dialoguing with the challenging parts of yourself is a powerful path to understanding and healing.
With the knowledge that your anxiety is a protective mechanism that has simply gotten out of proportion, perhaps you can sit with it, ask it what it needs. Invite it to tell you what its goals are, and maybe you can work together in a mutually beneficial way.
Let it speak through your mouth, or silently in your ears. You may wish to let it write through your fingers.
4. Heal through creative expression
Whether your medium is painting, drawing, writing, poetry, storytelling, music, or anything else at all, expressing yourself through creativity can be a powerful way to give voice to your feelings and make meaning of your challenges. The goal is not to create something beautiful for others to admire (although that may happen), but to enter into a process of awareness and healing.
Notice what comes up for you as you create, any thoughts or feelings, any changes in mood, or anything at all.
Channel your anxiety into making something new. Give it a voice through your expression, and let it be transformed.
Anxiety can sometimes consume us to the point where it is hard to address it and process it alone. In this case, a trained Gestalt therapist can support you in regaining control and reducing anxiety’s hold on your life.
You don’t need to do this alone.