Anxiety is a universal emotional and physical response to danger, stress, uncertainty or change. Anxiety serves a valuable purpose. It tells us to pay attention, be prepared, use precautions and look out for ourselves. It is a potentially life-preserving force. Even people with the most steady, calm temperaments have the potential to experience anxiety from time to time when faced with a particularly daunting or scary situation.
I remember learning about the difference between state and trait anxiety when I was in graduate school, pursuing my masters in counseling psychology. State anxiety refers to the feeling of tense, fearful hyper-arousal that occurs during a stressful or potentially threatening situation. Trait anxiety, on the other hand, is the degree to which an individual is likely to experience anxiety in any given situation.
While some people experience anxiety infrequently, others are hard-wired to respond anxiously often and in many situations. We might say that people with a higher trait anxiety have anxious predispositions, or are more susceptible to anxiety, the way some people are more susceptible to developing strep throat or ear infections.
I have an anxious predisposition and have struggled with chronic anxiety for much of my life, and as a counselor, I have treated people with anxiety disorders. I have spent a great deal of time reading, writing, thinking and talking about anxiety, and a great deal of time experiencing and observing anxiety. One thing that has helped me, both on personal and professional levels, is the use of imagery and language to find ways of describing, envisioning and managing anxiety. Here are four examples.
1. Getting to Know Your Anxiety
Think of this not as you would get to know a friend or loved one, but as you would get to know an opponent. Once you get to know your opponent’s strategies and signature moves, you can better prepare yourself to put up a good fight and possibly even win or end up ahead. Similarly, when we get to know our own brand of anxiety, we can develop tools and strategies for handling it. We can begin to see that even though symptoms of anxiety — and the situations that cause us to feel anxious — might indeed be unpleasant, scary and overwhelming, we can get through it.
2. Taking a Step Back from Anxiety
This involves recognizing when your anxiety response has been triggered, and being able to keep a small part of our awareness separate from the experience. Once we do this, we have the capacity to talk ourselves through it, to remind ourselves that it will pass and to choose how we want to respond or which tool/strategy might help us.
3. Seeing the Two-Sided Scale
It might be helpful to envision a two-sided scale: with you standing on one side of it and anxiety on the other side. First, this image reminds us that although we might have anxiety, anxiety does not define us. Regardless of how often anxiety comes to visit, we are still our own person. Additionally, this image can help us to gauge where we are with our anxiety at any given moment. Once we assess the degree of anxiety, we can adjust our behavior and expectations accordingly.
4. Acknowledging the Layers of Self-Imposed Suffering
Often, with chronic anxiety, comes feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing. It is common to hear people with anxiety say things like:
- “I feel like a burden on others.”
- “I feel weak or like I’m a coward.”
- “I’ve tried everything and I’m still anxious. I must be doing something wrong.”
I’ve come to see these kinds of thoughts and feelings as extra layers of suffering that we put on ourselves, the way a person might put on a hooded sweatshirt before going outside during a heat wave. It is normal to feel frustrated and discouraged at times when dealing with a chronic condition like anxiety. But, if we can learn to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves, we are more likely to make progress than if we weigh ourselves down with extra layers of pain and suffering.
I encourage anyone who is struggling to use images and analogies, or to find your own way of using language and imagery as a tool for managing symptoms and relapses. And for those who do not struggle with a specific condition, other than the human condition, these ideas may be helpful to you, too, as you strive to maintain a sense of balance, perspective, purpose and meaning.
Susie Moore is a professional counselor living and working in Philadelphia, PA. Susie has a background in music and education, and is also a mom to a 12 year old girl. Susie can be reached at email@example.com.