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Learning How to Listen to Anxiety Can Help Change How You React to It

Learning How to Listen to Anxiety Can Help Change How You React to It

In 2017, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) polled one thousand US adults and found that nearly two-thirds were “extremely or somewhat anxious about health and safety for themselves and their families,” and more than one-third were more anxious overall than the previous year. By generation, millennials were the most anxious and baby boomers the least. Interestingly, men and women were equally anxious, though we’ve been led to believe differently, and people of color reported higher levels of anxiety than White people.

This article is part of our Quarterlife series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.

The beauty—yes, beauty—of anxiety is that there is wisdom in it. Anxiety itself counsels and directs. It points back to our families and how we may have learned our fears and anxiety. It points back to our traumas and unhealed wounds. It points back to losses we still need to deal with, whether it be lost life, lost love, or lost time. It points back to values that may have shifted for the culture that just won’t work for us. And how could they? These values aren’t ones that God made important for our lives.

Anxiety bubbles at the surface with a message from deep down. We should remain curious about it. We should listen. Here are at least three questions you can ask yourself as you listen to your anxiety.

Are you in danger? Because fear and anxiety are ultimately supposed to protect us, we most certainly should take the time to assess if we’re in any real danger. If your anxiety suggests that you might be, you must pay attention and take action. I think about the case of someone who just left a relationship characterized by poor boundaries, intimidation, and other signs of abuse. This person may be anxious that their ex could return to their life unexpectedly and somehow hurt them. There’s a legitimate threat here that should be worked out with a therapist who specializes in partner violence, and possibly the legal system. 

The same goes for danger that isn’t physical but rather emotional or psychological. Maybe there are friends in your life who are causing more harm than good. Maybe your significant other’s drinking is getting a little bit out of control. Maybe the class you’re about to do a presentation for is full of sophisticated bullies and you would prefer not to be terrorized just to get a grade. All of these scenarios warrant a bit of your attention, a ton of emotional support, and a reasonable plan for how you want to move forward.

What are my current thoughts? Anxiety typically points to some specific worries. Oftentimes, those worries take the form of “what if?”

  • What if they don’t like me?
  • What if I put myself out there and they reject me?
  • What if this ruins our friendship?
  • What if she doesn’t forgive me?
  • What if I fail at this and have to start over again?
  • What if this doesn’t work out for me?
  • What if I take my shot and miss?
  • What if, what if, what if?

When anxiety points back to a problem with a bunch of “what ifs,” try answering back with the equally powerful question, “So what?” This is a method I picked up from anxiety expert psychologist Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett, who shared about it in her book Soothe Your Nerves. “So what” questioning helps anxious individuals realize that what they are fearing could happen is far worse than what might actually happen. Look at some examples for how this works:

  • What if they don’t like me? (So what?)
  • What if I put myself out there and they reject me? (So what?)
  • What if this strains our friendship? (So what?)
  • What if I fail at this and have to start over again? (So what?)

See, once “what ifs” are met with “so whats,” worries begin to shrink in size and significance. Perhaps what’s most helpful is the fact that the solutions to our worries become more clear, focused, and executable.

For example, if you “so what” your fear about failing and having to start over again, you could work on a plan of action should that actually happen. You would likely also gain some confidence that if this were the outcome, you would survive it.

Is there something unresolved in me? Anxiety acts as a defense mechanism. It often works to protect us from deeper, harder, more uncomfortable emotions until we have the time, space, and support to really deal with them. 

That being said, your growing anxiety may be a sign that it’s time to finally dig in. As you reflect on your recent history, what other feelings keep coming up for you? Is it sadness, bitterness, frustration, shame? Where might these feelings be coming from? Does any current frustration resemble frustration from your past? Are core beliefs being triggered?

The wisdom of your anxiety may allude to the fact that anxiety isn’t your problem at all. It may be old memories, long-standing insecurities, or deep doubts. These types of issues are best worked out in therapy.

It behooves us to remain curious about our anxiety, to listen to it, and to see the path it might want to take us down. However, sometimes anxiety rises, and we just need to relieve it. Sometimes we just need something to get us through the day. Research emphatically supports the use of deep breathing (sometimes called diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, or paced breathing), imagery, and meditation to relieve rising levels of anxiety. I’ve also found it comforting to learn that faithful Christians have practiced things like deep breathing and breath prayer, contemplative prayer, and meditation for centuries!

I encourage you to develop your own anxiety regimen or meditation practice that you can fall back on. One you can use alone in your room or together with your church small group or circle of friends. Do more research if you need to (there are tons of books, articles, and practice exercises out there), but keep it pure, keep it simple, and make it work for you. No matter how hard it gets, keep at least one thing in mind: you’re not in this alone.

Adapted from Why Do I Feel Like This by Peace Amadi. Copyright (c) 2021 by Chynyere Peace Amadi. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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