No one is immune to anxiety, right? Job interviews, hosting family holiday events, public speaking obligations, writing blog posts for the world to judge….. Oh the fear! Not to mention the heavy hitter fears like health issues, financial difficulties, and relationship strains that can throw us into pure panic. Truly, no one is immune to fear.
Weirdly enough though, some anxiety can be a good thing. A little test anxiety, for example, puts us right into gear to cram before that big exam. Also, the fear of humiliation and harsh judgement from our in-laws can motivate us to check out the Martha Stewart website and prepare to impress everyone with our holiday dinner and fantastic decorating skills. Anxiety or fear, like most all emotions, can be helpful or harmful depending upon where they occur on our personal spectrums. It’s when anxiety grabs a firm choke hold in our lives and becomes a relentless voice in our heads and a churning tightness in our chests that refuses to be turned off that we have a real problem. It starts running away with us and it feels like a constant state of unraveling. The next thing you know we’re avoiding people and events andshutting down to protect ourselves; or maybe we’re aggressively trying to control everything and everyone to wrestle our lives to the ground so we can feel safe again. Sometimes we just freeze and we can’t seem to make a simple decision to save ourselves! Anxiety can sometimes transform us in such a way that all forward motion in our lives comes to a screeching halt and we are consumed with protecting ourselves from eminent disaster (or at least perceived eminent disaster).
That’s usually when the therapist gets a call. When the fight or flight response is kicking our butts and we’ve sort of stopped living and just started “enduring.”
And while we therapists will have a lot of helpful tools to offer in the coping with this “protection on steroids”, I’d like to offer some food for thought that might be a little help in the meantime.
A very simple concept here, but a very powerful one is that ATTACHMENT = ANXIETY. What this means is that when we are attached or invested to a particular outcome, we create anxiety. For example, if I am attached to landing a better job, and I’m measuring my success or failure by whether or not I get this job offer, then the interview I am about to attend is extremely anxiety provoking. Even though there are many variables that are out of my control between the interview that I give and the position being offered to me. What I mean to say is that I could nail the interview, but there could be a more experienced candidate in the pool or the interviewer may have a bias toward internal employees and decide to hire from within. A million different variables, none of which I have any control over, can negatively affect the outcome that I am shooting for, and yet I am holding myself responsible for the outcome of offer or no offer.
Of course there is strong validity to the fact that if I don’t interview well, I likely will not receive an offer of employment. Which is a very crucial point. Because when we evaluate this scenario objectively, the only real control that I have over the entire process is how well I interview.
The trick to eliminating anxiety then becomes to DETACH from the outcome of whether or not I receive the offer of employment, and instead measure my success or failure by how well I interview. If I focus my attention and efforts on controlling the controllable piece of the puzzle, and keeping my focus on step one of the process, and then measure my success or failure after the interview on how well I was prepared for the interview rather than whether or not I got the job, I can then evaluate my efforts fairly and think about what I might improve before the next interview that might increase the odds of me getting the outcome that I desire. This process puts me firmly back in control of what I can control and lets me release all of the anxiety that comes with the uncontrollables.
“Oh sure”, you say – “it’s one thing when you’re going on a job interview, but what if I find out I have cancer?” “How can I manage that anxiety?” Exactly in the same way. Of course you’d like to achieve a full cure. But if you ATTACH yourself to a complete cure outcome, the variables that are outside of your control that help determine that outcome will likely cause you to have crushing anxiety. If, however, you are able to DETACH from the outcome of a complete cure and put your complete focus on step one of the treatment process that you have control over (e.g., careful, proper nutrition and appropriate lifestyle changes during treatment), your anxiety will be greatly reduced. You may or may not get the outcome that you desire, but you have done everything that was within your power to contribute to the process. Remember, some anxiety will be helpful. It is anxiety that will drive us to focus every effort on controlling the controllables in these important places in our lives.
So to recap, the degree to which we experience anxiety is determined by the degree to which we are attached to an outcome. So let’s focus small and let go of the rest folks. Our psyches could use a rest…..