Hi Everyone, welcome to the anxious pineapple, a show dedicated to getting curious about our good friend, anxiety. My name is Kayla Chorley, your host and anxious therapist.
A friendly reminder this podcast is in no way a substitute for therapy, and does not constitute therapeutic advice. This is simply for informational purposes only. I encourage you to follow up with your own therapist or medical doctor for personal support and advice.
Welcome back to another episode of the anxious pineapple, I am so happy to have you here with me today.
A few weeks ago I asked my followers on Instagram to let me know what they want to know about anxiety, and one submission I received said “can we control it?” And I thought that was such a powerful question.
Control is a pretty loaded term – it really encouraged me to reflect on what is in our control, what isn’t, &, what isn’t yet… which is an interesting concept in and of itself. And it also encouraged me to take stock of the areas of my life in which I try to assert control and whether that in and of itself is anxiety doing what it does best – trying to predict what will happen, in an attempt to keep me safe.
So, today I want us to explore the question of control – can we actually control anxiety? Is control a form of anxiety in and of itself? And why changing our relationship with anxiety impact the way we might perceive or approach the idea of control. Alright, let’s do this!
Let’s start by talking about the idea of control. When I think of the word control I automatically think of trying to manipulate something in an attempt to guarantee some sort of outcome. Now, at first mention, this sounds fantastic – who wouldn’t want to be able to predict what happens next? We know anxiety certainly loves to do that, or at least attempts to do that.
Interestingly enough, anxiety might even show up in your life as control. We know anxiety loves two things – certainty and comfort, so we often try to gain these things through control, thinking that if we do a,b, & c and make sure x, y, & z is done, we will get the outcome we want. This ties in so well with the idea of perfectionism. If we are perfect and we control our settings, anxiety will be easier to manage and we will ultimately get what we want.
Here comes our good friend, perfectionism. If we do things perfectly, and ultimately control everything in our environment, both external and internal, we can keep anxiety at bay right?! Well, if you are a perfectiknist like me, you know that’s not the case. Perfectionism keeps us striving for the unabtainable. When we don’t reach it, we feel like failures, and ultimately it impacts our self-concept. Not to mention, it does the opposite of what we want it too – it exasperates anxiety and keeps us stuck in this never ending loop.
Now, as you may have guessed, it is simply impossible to control for every potential outcome – and the same is true when we are dealing with anxiety. Not to mention how exhausting it would be to try and manipulate anxiety and all of the symptoms, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that come with it. Talk about overwhelming!
What about our thoughts & feelings… can we control them? Not really – our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are mostly random. It’s kind of like popcorn – we can’t anticipate which kernel will pop, but we know that they will. And some of these thoughts and feelings will be helpful, and others will not.
So what do we have control over then? We have control over how we choose to engage with our thoughts and feelings and where we decide to act on them or not. Now, for a lot of us this might not be a skill we have acquired yet.. after all, many of us have fallen hard into the trap of trying to make our thoughts and feelings go away – so know that it takes time and practice, but it is possible.
One way you can get started is by understanding that thoughts are simply thoughts. They don’t have any power unless we give it to them. Think of something that you used to believe in that you no longer do. Spoiler alert – I usually use the example of Santa Claus – when I was a kid I thought he was real! If anyone asked me I could argue for hours about his existence. Now, I don’t believe Santa exists today like I did when I was younger. My thoughts have shifted and changed over time. So if we look at thoughts as simply being thoughts, we don’t need to give them any more meaning or space then necessary.
So, let’s get to the real heart of why we are all here today: the question of, can we control anxiety? Now, I want to rephrase this because technically no, we can’t control anxiety per say – we can’t control when or how it shows up for us; but remember the amygdala and how it activates the alarm system and engages our flight, fight, freeze response? Well, we can reduce its trigger response so it doesn’t sound this alarm so much. This usually starts in our body, particularly with the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a massive nerve that surrounds most of our major organs, and runs from our body to our brain, and is connected to our parasympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for relaxation). So, when we press on the vagus nerve, it sends a message to our brains, and the amygdala, to relax and chill out – letting it know it’s not necessary to sound the alarm. Here’s the thing – we can’t press on the vagus nerve directly, but when we engage in deep breathing, everytime we expand and contract our diagram it presses on the vagus nerve for us.
Now, knowing that we can’t control anxiety directly, let me throw out this scenario to you. Let’s say you have encountered some sort of magic. This magic allows you to get rid of anxiety. (I know what you are thinking… Where can I buy this? Is it available on Amazon for overnight shipping?) Jokes aside, let’s consider what would happen if anxiety disappeared. Now, for some of us who experience anxiety attacks, deal with phobias, and are just plain sick of anxiety getting in the way of us living our best lives, it sounds really great right?
But, we know when things sound too good to be true there is often a catch. So here it is: if you were to get rid of anxiety, you would be getting rid of a protector. You know that feeling you get when you sense danger, like when I mentioned a grizzly bear showing up in your house? That would be gone – you’d no longer sense the bear as a threat. Perhaps you’d even try and pet the bear thinking it’s of no danger to you. Not to mention your ability to kick into fight, flight, freeze mode would also be gone, so if you found out the bear wasn’t as friendly as you originally thought, it would be near impossible to protect yourself.
So, let me ask you again. If you could get rid of anxiety, would you want to?
In all honesty, this was totally my attitude towards my own anxiety for the majority of my life. When I was younger I wanted nothing more than to be rid of it forever. Needless to say it was a never ending battle, and I was exhausted. The more I tried to get rid of anxiety, the more it was on my mind and the more it would show up in my life. It was all-consuming. Wake up – get ready to battle.
This mindset also made me feel like there was something terribly wrong with me that needed to be fixed. I felt desperate, alone, and broken. It sucked – a lot.
And When I have conversations about anxiety with friends, family members, clients, colleagues, I hear them talk about these same struggles too. So, HOW DO WE DROP THE STRUGGLE?
Let me first start with a hard truth – our struggle with anxiety is often what creates our discomfort. There is a famous ACT metaphor that illustrates this point with quicksand. If we were to fall into a pit of quicksand (which seemed to happen really frequently in the movies and cartoons I used to watch as a kid), our first instinct would likely be to try and fight our way out of it by moving our arms and legs; yet, when we try and fight it and struggle with quicksand, it makes things worse – it causes us to sink. If we stop struggling and stay still, we will float in quicksand, allowing us to escape. The same is true with anxiety – the more we struggle, the more we sink; the less we struggle, the more we float.
So, we can drop the struggle by allowing anxiety in and re-building a working relationship with it. One way we can do this is by thinking of anxiety as one of many parts of ourselves. Ask yourself how you feel about the anxious part of you – are you curious and compassionate towards it? Are you annoyed with it?
This was something I really had to sit with for a while. Initially, I was really upset with that part of myself – I felt annoyed with it and angry towards it; after all it seemed to be working against me instead of for me. I had to work through some of those feelings and acknowledge those other parts of myself first before I could really get to a place of feeling compassionate and open to the anxious part of me. That took time and lots of unlearning. If you find yourself feeling annoyed or angry towards the anxious part of you, that’s okay. Continue to work through those feelings from a place of curiosity. Acknowledge these feelings and give them all space to be heard.
Once you’ve gotten to a place in which you feel truly curious and compassionate towards the anxious part of yourself, see if you can connect with it and communicate with it by turning your attention inwards and have a conversation with the anxious part of yourself. I know – it sounds kind of out there, but it’s a helpful way to rebuild your relationship with anxiety. Many of us are concerned that if we open a dialogue with anxiety it will take over, so it might be helpful to first gently ask anxiety to allow you to not overwhelm you so you can listen to what it has to say. You can follow up with questions like: What does it want you to know? What is its role & how does it try to protect you? Give the anxious part an opportunity to share with you. You might be surprised with what you find out about its role and what it does for you.
Another way to drop the struggle is to practice radical acceptance. Allow anxiety to be there with you as you go about your day. I know you’ve heard me say this before, but it’s okay to feel anxious. In those moments take a minute to address the anxious part by saying something like: “thank-you for being here with me. I know you are trying to protect me and I appreciate that. I am going to allow you to be here with me, and I am still going to move forward.”
So my friends, as always I encourage you to get curious about your anxiety this week. Take some time to reflect on what your current relationship with anxiety is – is it one of struggle and control? Or, is it a working relationship? See you next time!
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