Anxiety is your Messenger

The first step in getting back to your journey in life is to change your understanding of the significance of anxiety. You might not believe it, but your anxiety is not just something that randomly happened. Your anxiety may well have some very personal message intended specifically FOR you. That message is probably unknown to you right now—you’re so turned inward, focused on surviving the symptoms and their impact on your life—but it is nevertheless a message of growth, one that begins by empowering yourself through your anxiety. You might even take a moment and politely say “Thank you” to your anxiety. You may be asking “Are you for real? Do I really need to thank my anxiety?” Absolutely you do. Anxiety is your friend, albeit a misguided friend. So thank your friend for trying to protect you.

Practicing the wisdom described herein may well resolve most of your anxiety symptoms. For example, we use the detachment of the observing mind to remove the person from the terror of exposure, which is created by the thinking mind. The larger goal, however, is not to remove the symptoms. That’s medical model thinking, the attitude of a surgeon. Instead, the goal of anxiety treatment is to open you up to directions where your potential as a human being is realized, to get you totally engaged with your life. Once totally engaged, you’ll be practicing exposure on your own, simply because you understand the price of withdrawing back into your protective shell of avoidance and resistance.

Consider Figure 1. Your life as you currently experience it is diagrammed on the left. You exist in a state of being stuck. Your attention and experience are focused primarily on the symptoms and the negative stories that your mind is telling you. Occasionally you try to defeat your anxiety by pushing forward, but then the symptoms become overpowering and you retreat back to your comfort zone.

As shown in Figure 1, anxiety is about seventy percent of your life. If you continue to follow anxiety management strategies, it will remain about seventy of your life. Sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less, but you can be certain that it’s not going away, and at this point, you really don’t understand why. If, however, you can be persuaded to practice the techniques and wisdom described herein, then your life begins to enlarge again. This is diagrammed on the right of Figure 1. Notice that the absolute amount of your life devoted to your anxiety and its symptoms is the same across both diagrams. Let’s say that you do manage to enlarge your life, but your symptoms never change. That’s not realistic—your symptoms diminish as your attitude toward anxiety changes—but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that you only manage to enlarge your life, and that your symptoms remain exactly the same. On the right side of Figure 1, you can see that anxiety is only about ten percent of your life. Would you rather anxiety be seventy percent or ten percent of your life? Everyone chooses the ten percent.

From a human growth perspective then, anxiety is really just your psyche’s reaction to too small of a life. Anxiety is a message from you to you, your way of letting yourself know that there’s more to examine, that your experience of your own self is incomplete, that there’s a road of discovery ahead. You may not be completely aware of it—and the intensity of your symptoms right now may lead you to deny it—but it’s there. Right now, your psyche is ringing alarm bells. Somewhere inside of you, symptoms are being created and they don’t seem to belong to you. A fire needs to be put out, and you feel helpless to do that.

But the symptoms do belong to you, they are created by you, and most importantly, they are letting you know there’s a direction of growth ahead. So, in the moment, when you are observing and monitoring and suffering with your symptoms, please be grateful. When anxiety appears, do not kill the messenger. Instead, summon inside yourself an attitude that is open and warm and inviting and welcoming. Anxiety is bringing you a gift, one of the most precious gifts that the universe can give. Anxiety is motivating you to seek answers in the practical wisdom of life. The reward is nothing less than an increase in the richness, scope, and meaning of life. Whereas the medical model is about reducing and escaping the symptoms, the human growth model is about identifying the underlying growth message of the symptoms, responding to that message, and finally outgrowing the symptoms.

If none of the above convinces you that gratitude is an essential part of your recovery, then consider this: If avoiding and resisting anxiety are the worst thing you can do, then the best thing is probably the opposite. Inviting and welcoming are things you do when you feel safe. When you take this attitude toward anxiety, you immediately move to a position of safety, and this helps turn down your stress response. Without your avoidance behaviors, anxiety has no energy source. Things immediately begin to calm down. Your welcoming attitude helps extinguish pockets of resistance in your mind and opens you to experiences that demonstrate concretely through real experience that anxiety is absolutely no threat to you.

What you get back from your recovery from anxiety, then, is a pathway to personal growth. This is more than you could ever imagine from the medical model, where the goal is simply to remove the symptoms. What could be better? Thank god you have anxiety.