Q: My life is great, I have a lovely family — two gorgeous kids and a supportive husband. I have very few responsibilities other than my own family and job. I say this, as I know people caring for elderly, sick parents and I have a couple of friends with special needs children. I know how lucky I am, so why am I so anxious? I worry all the time — about what I say to people, accepting or turning down invitations — and if I have nothing to worry about, I worry anyway.
It is actually quite crippling. Is there something I need to uncover? Please, can you help?
Before I start, I’m going to stop you right there. You have “very few responsibilities other than your family and job”? That is a lot. Full stop. If I could change one thing for you, and for the countless number of times I’ve heard this before in session, it would be to stop minimising what you are actually feeling.
You are finding your worry crippling.
That is debilitating; emotionally, psychologically and physically. Worry is so immensely tiring, time-consuming and sucks the joy out of life. It robs people of peace of mind and makes you doubt every decision and thought that you have — which massively impacts your confidence.
On top of that, you add guilt and shame as you feel you ‘shouldn’t’ or aren’t allowed to feel like this because things are not bad enough.
What do you think would give you the right to feel anxious? What would be ‘enough’ to warrant you to be allowed to express how you feel?
I feel very strongly about this because people neglect, object and ignore what they feel, which leads to a further sense of isolation and disconnection from yourself and others. Listen to what you are saying to yourself and tune into what is going on for you, with the express intent of using strategies to help you manage this difficult experience in your life.
There will always be hardships for other people that you feel are far worse. But how does this thought help you? What is interesting is that the hardships you’ve mentioned for your friends are visible hardships. Your worries are invisible to others. The gap between your public and private sense of how you think you ‘should’ feel with “two gorgeous kids and a supportive husband” and how you do feel privately may leave you in an uncomfortable, distressing place. You are mentally stigmatising yourself as you become more anxious about being anxious.
The unfortunate truth is, I hear, ‘I have no reason to be anxious’ but, there are reasons. Stop fighting with yourself. Sit with how this is for you. Write out how your worries influence and impact you every day. Write this in private — no one will see it — so put your own judgement aside and acknowledge how you actually feel. In ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) you come at this from a place of compassion as you learn and practise ‘accepting’ how you feel. This can be confusing; acceptance does not mean you are not going to do anything. You accept that, at present, you feel crippled with worry, which you feel is too much.
Obviously, I don’t know if you have general anxiety disorder (GAD), but I would suggest getting support from a mental health practitioner to help identify and work through the feelings you are having. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and (ACT) are very effective. GAD is characterised by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. People with GAD may anticipate disaster and may be overly concerned about health, family, work, or other issues. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry.
So what can you do to feel back in control? The paradox is that if you accept how you feel, the anxiety becomes more manageable. It is the struggle with accepting how you feel that leads to the distress. Does that make it go away? No, it doesn’t, but that isn’t the point.
We need to put our physical hats on when we think about mental health. We don’t get angry, sad, frustrated or feel like a failure when we get a cold again. We don’t have a rant, ‘but I never wanted to have a cold again, I can’t believe this, I’m a failure.’
Then why do we hold ourselves prisoner to the illusion that we only experience anxiety or mental health issues once?
What you need to do is to ‘commit’ to facing the feelings and find ways to engage with your values and what makes life meaningful for you. Learning how to turn off ‘the struggle switch’ is a great place to start. You can watch The Struggle Switch, by Dr Russ Harris, which shows you how to do just that.
The good news is that anxiety responds really well to therapy and I hope that you get to see that for yourself in the very near future.
If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at email@example.com