In my practice I run into a couple of issues more frequently than others. One of those issues is anxiety. It seems that the Americans of today are programmed to operate just a little more on edge than those of generations past. As a result, we are now a Nation dependent on medications that numb our feelings and we are chronically addicted to avoidance. Of my clients who walk through the rehab doors, I’d say that well over half were, at one time, simply trying to manage their anxiety, and lost themselves along the way. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health the prevalence of anxiety is at an all time high, 18.1% of American adults have been diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder. What’s more, the average age of onset for an anxiety disorder is 11 years old! We are hard wiring our children to be laden with worry!!!
What fuels this seemingly unceasing battle against our own ill conceived worry? The prevailing school of thought that we shouldn’t be anxious. It is a common belief in our society that feeling“bad” is wrong. That’s part of the reason the number anxiety diagnoses has skyrocketed. We all want to feel good all the time and if we feel anxious at all, we will do anything to numb it.
The anxiety we feel is not “bad” at all. It just is. We feel anxious for a reason. Numbing it out only creates a chronic pattern of avoidance that exacerbates the anxious symptoms. In fact, anxiety, itself, is an evolutionary development that puts us a step above other species. Our ability to benefit from anxiety has helped us to become more aware of our surroundings in an effort to keep us alive in an increasingly dangerous world. It’s what sets us a cut above.
How we choose to manage, or deal with, our anxiety is the problem. How we think we should feel is the real issue. If we can learn to “befriend” our anxious minds, settling them as we feel a rush of worry, we can live freely. Fortunately, I have some helpful tools to help do just that! But first, let’s look at the problem we have created.
I recently read a very interesting article in NY Times on how the drug Xanax has grown immensely in popularity among Americans. It is now one of the most heavily prescribed drugs in the U.S. This is largely due to onslaught of anxiety we feel we must avoid. Xanax, like other substances, is simply a way to numb out the Anxiety. And yet, we crave it we feed on the anxiety provoking media and alarmist social agendas. Talk about a paradox! We chronically attempt to avoid the thing we crave. One of the most interesting sections in the article was this, “Anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition… a shared cultural experience that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media… It seems we have entered a new Age of Anxiety. Monitoring our heart rates. Swiping ceaselessly at our iPhones. Filling meditation studios in an effort to calm our racing thoughts.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote Our nation is transfixed on the next fad that is just around the corner and obsessed with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Both things that are completely out of our control. And we wonder why tweens can’t handle a routine exam anymore without a mental breakdown, or why trophies are handed out like candy? We have done this to ourselves.
THE UNKNOWN AND THE FUTURE, ANXIETY’S FUEL
How we feed our Anxiety is rooted in several things, there are two in particular that I want to focus on: the unknown and the future. Both are very similar and both we are unable to grasp at the present moment, therein lies the problem. We focus on what isn’t happening right now, instead of what is happening right now. This is our response to feelings of anxiety. We provoke the anxious response by focusing on the unknowable and uncontrollable.
Think about the last time you felt worried. Why were you anxious? Was it about something you could control? Or were you transfixed on a future something-or-other that plagued your inability to deal with the unknown? I’m guessing it was the latter.
Not too long ago, I had an awful run in with anxiety that nearly knocked me down for the count. A few years ago when I was in grad school I was overwhelmed and overworked. I was working full-time as an administrator at a residential treatment center for struggling adolescent boys, attending full-time graduate school, and working as an intern at Adult Probation and Parole as a part-time therapist. Needless to say I was anxious mess. Just as the school year was finishing and things at my internship were winding down, the end was in sight. I focused on what I presumed was my future, as if it were the only thing that could calm the whirring noise anxious thoughts in my brain.
Just when the end was in sight, something completely unexpected was dropped on me. I was let go from my long time employment of seven years, the place I planned to spend my future. I had originally entered graduate school so that I could be a therapist at the treatment center. I felt so betrayed and blindsided. Suddenly all of my future plans were obliterated in a matter of seconds! I had placed all of my eggs in one basket and that basket was just lit on fire. My anxiety was out of control! What would I do now?
This was a moment of reckoning for me, only the unknown lay before me and I had no way to fix this. I felt broken by uncertainty. All the years of helping others deal with their own fear and anxiety, and I felt completely unprepared to deal with my own. I tried all sorts of ways to manage my anxiety: I blamed everyone else, I avoided my responsibilities, I isolated myself, and I was meanest to the people I love most. My anxiety had morphed into depression.
THE ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION LINK
If anxiety is focused on the future, depression is focused on the past. The two are interconnected in such a way that one begets the other and visa-versa. I was so hyper-focused on my past and how I had failed, that the only thing left for me to do was to focus on how to fix my failure. And in doing so, I completely missed out on where I was at that moment. I would jump from ruminating on why I had lost my job, what I should have done better… back to what I needed to do to keep that from ever happening again, what I needed to do to “fix” what I perceived as broken, myself. This is the essence of anxiety.
You can’t fix what isn’t broken, and every time we try something new to “fix” ourselves, we inadvertently send the subtle, yet powerful, message of “I am broken.” My feeble attempts to control what I couldn’t, the future so I could fix the past, were only creating more turmoil and reinforcing my belief that I was broken, that I was damaged.
I was soon forced to accept my situation. I soon adopted the mantra of, “This sucks and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.” I accepted that I was in an awful situation and blaming others or avoiding doing something about it was not working. I soon learned that as I focused on what I was actually doing, in the moment, I was happier and better equipped to manage my situation.
There is a reason why Step one of the 12 steps is all about “acceptance.” (If you’ve never read the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, click the hyperlink to read them.) Accepting powerlessness is the foundation to overcoming anxiety. If we insist on believing that we can control our discomfort, instead of accepting it, all we do is resist and create more discomfort for ourselves.
WHAT CAN I CONTROL?
After accepting my situation, I then learned to focus on knowing the difference between two things: 1. what I could control and 2. what I couldn’t. One of the most helpful tools for managing anxiety is the following graphic. To this day I use it with every one of my clients and in my own life. I actually used this in two sessions today!
If one can understand the difference between what one can control and what one can’t, anxiety becomes helpful. In my situation at the time, I was too heavily focused on what I couldn’t control. I was focused on other’s actions. I was angry that I had been let go from my long time job. I felt that I was owed my employment. I was letting the actions of others and my own mistaken beliefs take over my feelings. I had lost sight of what I could do about my own situation. I realized that I needed to focus on what I could control in the moment. That’s the key, one needs to focus on what is happening right now to be able to manage an over active, anxious brain.
When we oscillate our thinking from the past to the future and back to the past, we miss out on what is going on right in front of us. We lose sight of what we have control over. What a miserable existence that is. When we focus too heavily on what we need to do to fix our problems, we miss out on what we can do to learn from our feelings right now. All we do is ignore the messages our feelings are trying to send us.
OUR ANXIOUS FEELINGS CAN BE HELPFUL
Our anxious feelings are there to help us, not hurt us. Left unchecked by an overactive focus on the unknown and the future, anxiety is no longer helpful. When put in check, our anxiety creates understanding and clarity.
Once I figured this out, my anxiety became not only manageable, but helpful, and my depression withered away. Today I still struggle with knowing how to use my anxiety to my advantage but I’m learning. Anxiety is helpful in many situations, think about competition or sports. Our anxiety is there to sharpen our senses, so that we can hit the ball at the right time or sprint as soon as we hear the starting gun, in those situations anxiety is helpful. Why should every day life be any different.
Now, I challenge myself to notice my anxiety symptoms and instead of trying to get rid of them, I “lean into them.” This looks like, feelings stress and using that stress to help me focus on what I’m doing in the moment rather than needing time to calm down. This looks like, feeling my heartbeat increase and breathing more deeply to slow it down all while focusing on how it feels in my chest when I breathe in and out. All things are there to keep me focused on this moment. It helps. We can “flip the script” on our anxiety and learn to use it to help us understand the world around us and to live more freely.
A great book on this subject is entitled Come to Your Senses by Dr. Stanley Block. He teaches us how to focus on the here and now using our five senses. It’s pretty remarkable stuff, you should check it out.
If you struggle with anxiety and need help managing it, contact me and I can help you get the right resources to help you end being crippled by it.
THE SOCIAL MEDIA FACADE
When you open social media these days what do you see? I’ll tell you what I see… I see a whole lot of happy people. Their lives look fantastic, and if I do some “measuring up” I begin to feel like I’m falling far short of the social status marker. I’m not in Tahiti. I don’t have a 500 lbs back squat. My kids are a mess (the baby literally has food all over her face as I write this.) My house isn’t as big, my cars aren’t as nice, and my abs aren’t as…. wait a second, I don’t even have abs! What am I doing wrong??? I don’t know about you, but I feel all sorts of pressure to put on a facade that “I have it all together.” And so most of the time what I put out into the world is that, I do have it all together.
Think about the last time you responded when someone asked, “How are you?” What’s the typical answer we give? I know what I usually say. It’s almost always one of two things: “I’m good” or “I’m so busy.” Both answers imply the same thing, “I’ve got it together.” “My life is so busy because it’s filled with all of this great stuff.” But that’s just not reality people.
If I were more honest when I’m asked that question, I’d probably answer differently. Something more along the lines of, “Well s***… Today is hard. I feel inadequate and I’m pretty sure I’m failing.” In my experience, most days are tough. Most days are filled with disappointments and failures. Most days… are not what you see on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or myspace. (Remember myspace? It still exists! Who knew, right?)
Why do we feel compelled to put on masks and create an image that isn’t real? Why do we have to lead on that we’ve got it all together? Well I have a theory. And luckily, this theory is backed by the research found in many books on this topic, most specifically in any of Brene Brown’s work.
SHOWING HOW WE FEEL IS NOT WEAKNESS
I want to focus on those italicized words in the last paragraph, “feel compelled.” We “feel compelled” to fake it, for a really good reason. We’ve been taught our entire lives that it’s not okay to feel a certain way. It’s not okay to be sad or scared. As little girls and boys we are taught to “suck it up” and “be tough.” To “put on a happy face,” to quote a familiar primary song I sang regularly at church growing up.
The pervasive school of thought in our culture is “Your feelings are not welcome here. Smile, damn it!” The world around us teaches us that there is weakness in showing fear, weakness in showing sadness. People who show how they really feel, are weak.
“We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” – Brene Brown
GENDER NORMS THAT KEEP US NUMB TO EMOTION
Emotions can be broken down into the four basics: Sad, Mad, Glad, and Scared. Little boys are taught differently than little girls, but we grow up basing our emotional awareness believing similar myths. Men end up believing that they are allowed to feel/express when they are glad and when they are mad. Women are raised to think that they are only allowed to show that they are happy. There’s no room for those other feelings.
Think about it… As a boy, if you show that you’re scared you’re labeled a wuss, or p*ssy. (I hate that word, but it’s so commonplace I couldn’t avoid including it.) I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “Don’t be a p*****!” or “Man up” growing up. The two phrases are synonymous with, don’t be weak! There is a strong stigma against expressing fear as a boy and that stigma is even more prevalent as a man. If you’re scared, your weak. If you’re sad, you’re broken. We are required to put on the mask of happiness, regardless of what we’re going through. Unless you’re mad, you sure as hell can be angry. Think about how often the media normalizes aggressive male behavior and stigmatizes men who express emotions of sadness or fear as being less of “a man.”
For women it’s even worse, they can’t even get angry! If a woman shows any anger she is labeled… a bitch, or it’s “that time of the month.” Nor are women allowed to be sad. If woman is depressed she’s got “the baby blues,” is a “poor thing,” or is… again, on her period. And fear??? Heaven forbid a woman shows any fear. If a woman expresses that she’s scared, don’t worry, a knight in shining armor is right there to fix it for her. Proving yet again that women are nothing without the men who rescue them.
These are the stereotypes pushed on us day in and day out by the media, our culture, and the societal norms that aren’t ever questioned. We must wear the mask of happiness, or else! We have been taught from such a young age that showing emotion is weakness and we will do anything to avoid being weak. So… a challenge arises. Do I take a risk and be vulnerable or do I continue to numb my feelings with addictions and avoidance?
In our society the answer is always the latter. Numb it out! “You can feel this, but you can’t feel that. So pop some Xanax and make it go away.” Living like this only creates a disconnected and lonely society that feeds on comparison and shame. We need to make a change.
FEEL DEEPLY, EXPRESS OPENLY
How do we change? How do we move away from the story we are told, that showing emotion is weakness?
It starts with vulnerability. Being more vulnerable with our families, being more more vulnerable at work, and yes, even being more vulnerable with our partners! (Imagine that, instead of just being pissed off all the time, we actually talk about feelings of sadness and fear, and feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt. What would that relationship look like? It might even be one that is… I don’t know, safe!) Sharing how we feel and expressing when we are scared or sad, is the only way to do it. If we want deep meaningful relationships filled with love and joy, we need to express the darker side of our emotions also.
Men, when you’re angry recognize it, label it, and see what’s really there. Most of the time, it’s fear. When we men feel scared, we show anger. Challenge that urge and let the people around you hear that you are afraid. When something tragic or awful happens, cry. Better yet, cry with someone. Don’t put on your mask, be real! Actually emoting is one of the most freeing experiences we can have as human beings. Be brave and show how you feel. Be vulnerable!
Women, get angry and don’t apologize. Cry with your head held high. Share when your scared and let people around you see that being afraid and anxious is normal. There is nothing wrong with your feelings, your emotions are what make you beautiful and human. Feel them deeply and express them openly!
IT’S UNCOMFORTABLE, BUT SO WORTH IT
Don’t get me wrong this isn’t an easy thing to do. Being real is hard. It’s also not the norm. So when people get freaked out when you respond to the question of “how are you?” with “I’m having a tough day” or “I’m feeling a little sad today,” just smile. Eventually you’ll get used to the discomfort. You’ll start to find even more comfort and more freedom as you stop living the facade and express what’s really going on. Try it out and who knows, maybe the more you do it the less compelled you’ll be to feel this, instead of that.
Please share this if you feel “compelled” to do so. And leave your experiences with being real in the comments below.
Matt Quackenbush, CSW, is a Primary Therapist at Deer Hollow Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Salt Lake City, UT. He has nearly 10 years of experience in the mental health and substance-abuse arena, and supports healing in the clients he serves from a trauma focused, client centered, and family systems approach.
A fantastic book on this subject is Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, much of what is written above is based on her findings of 12 years of research on shame and vulnerability.
Pick up the book here: Daring Greatly
Follow Matt of Social Media: Instagram
“I wish I loved anything as much as my kids love bubbles.” – Pete (Paul Rudd), in the film Knocked Up.
Bubbles are a fascinating thing. They live in suspended animation for these fleeting moments. Moments, that bring joy to the hearts of all children. I too appreciate the iridescent beauty of the bubble as if floats past; but the wonder my children experience as they gaze at floating bubbles bouncing over their heads… escapes me.
The world I live in appears to be vastly different than the world of my children. Their world is small and limited; mine, large and full of possibilities. As well, their priorities differ from mine. I have all sorts of fears and anxieties and they live more carefree than I ever could. But in reality, my world is pretty is not too different from theirs. My children feel safe and loved, and so do I. I live in a beautiful town where I can leave my doors unlocked and, most likely, nothing will happen. So I like my children, perceive my world as safe. In my “bubble” I’m safe.
My bubble is based on my own experience, it’s my perception. I grew up in a bubble that wasn’t full of crime and so my view is, the world is generally safe. Because I am a white male in my 30’s, I perceive the world around me as there to help me. Things are pretty good for me.
This is such and important principle to understand. I make judgments based on my bubble. My bubble tells me that I am safe and things should come easy for me. But what happens when my bubble “pops” and I am forced outside, forced to step into someone else’s bubble? What happens when some else’s bubble rubs up against mine and suddenly, my reality is no longer “my reality”?
I am very fortunate, I get to do this every day of my life. I work with drug addicts. People who’s bubbles are scary and awful. They will do anything to escape their reality, that’s why they have turned to drugs and alcohol, to escape the memories of the past.
Did you know that there is a stronger correlation between childhood trauma and addiction, than there is between obesity and diabetes? Meaning, if I’m obese, I have a very high chance of becoming diabetic, but if I was molested as a child, it’s more likely that I will become a drug addict. Yes you read that right. 66% of all addicts were raped, molested, or otherwise abused as children.１
Does that compute? We wage the “war on drugs” against a bunch of traumatized children who are all grown up. Children who have never learned how to deal with the memories of their traumatic childhood without using substances to “forget,” even for a brief moment, what happened to them.
Learning this has changed my perspective, it popped my bubble. And when my bubble popped, I chose to change my life and dedicate to helping addicts overcome their pasts. I’m not looking for praise here people, I just want to convey that when I stepped out of my bubble, I learned something I didn’t know. I stepped outside my bubble and I gained more empathy and understanding than I could ever imagine.
So maybe if we all took some time to step out of our bubble and into another person’s, we might learn something. Even more importantly, we might become more understanding of why someone does what they do. We gain empathy.
Here’s the challenge I am extending to us all: Walk off your path for a day. Spend some time with someone who doesn’t look like you. Get to know someone who you don’t understand. If you have some resentment toward someone, ask them about who they are. If you disagree with someone, find out why they think the way they do. If you see a homeless person on the street, instead of thinking “get a job!”, go ask him his story and buy him a sandwich.
I’m willing to bet that if we all took a moment to ask a few questions and understand the people around us before we try to pass judgment on them, we’d all be a hell of a lot happier. Give it a shot, and let me know how it went in the comments below….
The world is a place that is becoming more and more lonely. We are bombarded daily by social media, news media, and politicians whose rhetoric and criticism keep us disconnected. It’s time we start re-connecting. It’s time we build bonds that are meaningful and deep.
The only way to do this is through empathy. If we can learn to better show how deeply we truly understand each other we can change the disconnection epidemic fueled by tearing each other down. We can instead begin to rebuild our society into a community that cares for each other and builds everyone up.
Join me as I explore and question societal norms, redefine the stigmas against addiction, challenge mental health norms, and learn about new ways to re-connect to the world and to each other.