Anxiety and panic attacks are uncomfortable. Sometimes anxiety is so physically uncomfortable that people experience heart palpitations, nausea, chest pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, or faintness. Sometimes anxiety symptoms worry someone so much that they call 911 or take themselves to the emergency room, only to be turned away after being assured that the problem is “just” anxiety.
In the counseling office, counselors often hear clients eager to alleviate and rid themselves entirely of anxiety. Certainly, relief would be nice, and some coping skills would be helpful. But what if honoring feelings of anxiety may help (in the end) to decrease anxiety? Before you say goodbye to your anxiety, consider the reasons why feeling anxious might be to your benefit.
Feeling anxiety may…
- Be a catalyst for change.
People may feel persistently anxious when when something in their life needs to change. For example, if you err on the side of workaholism, burnout is a very real risk. Anxiety is your body’s way of signaling overload. It is alerting you to a need to say “no” to something on your plate. It can prompt you to challenge your list of have-to obligations.
- Help you acclimate to new things.
Anxiety can be a sign that you are outside of your comfort zone. Anytime you do something new, anxiety is there to help you get your bearings, watch for “danger,” and minimize risk. Often, the more that you repeatedly experience being out of your comfort zone in a specific way, the more your comfort zone expands, and the less you need anxiety to help you be watchful.
- Be self-honoring and validating.
When you tell yourself to “stop feeling anxious,” you are sending a message that there is something “bad” or wrong happening. That self-talk message can create a form of secondary anxiety– anxiety about having anxiety! These worried thoughts about the anxiety itself can increase tension (and add in guilt or shame), rather than alleviate stress. Instead, if you tell yourself that it’s okay to feel nervous or be panicked, they can begin to feel more okay with themselves and honor the good reasons why they might be anxious.
- Ease a panic attack.
Most of the time, panic attacks are triggered by something stressful in your environment, then made worse by “danger” thoughts about the panic itself. Common catastrophic thoughts experienced during a panic attack include (but aren’t limited to):
- “I shouldn’t be so anxious.”
- “I’m having a heart attack.”
- “Why is this happening again?”
- “I’m going to faint.”
- “I’m going to die.”
- “My panic attack will never end. I can’t handle this.”
Panicked thoughts about your body’s experience of anxiety only make you more afraid. These thoughts feed your panic and make it difficult for your body to calm. In fact, how long a panic attack lasts might be somewhat in your control. If you can stop scaring yourself with catastrophic thoughts (or should-thoughts), the adrenaline from your fight-or-flight reaction will wear itself out in a few minutes.
Instead, try not to ignore what you’re feeling. Notice and feel the sensations of your anxiety or panic. Assure yourself that the feelings aren’t harmful (because they’re usually not). Don’t fight the feelings, but imagine yourself surfing them like a wave. The more you resist, the higher your anxiety; the more you accept what you’re feeling, the more quickly it can pass.
- Increase Performance (at low to moderate levels)
Certainly high or persistent anxiety can be more of a hindrance than a help. However, at occasional low-to-moderate levels, anxiety prepares your body for action in a more productive manner. It increases drive, focus, clarity, strength, and stamina on intellectually stimulating tasks.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that is safe (and helpful) for you to feel. Let yourself feel your feelings, but then move on. Anxiety has a tendency to take over if it becomes your primary focus. Stay engaged in practice of living life. A mental health counselor can help you build a customized tool box for coping (and making friends) with anxiety.
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