BY KATHRYN CASEY
I always believed in taking on challenges. Nothing seemed too difficult. It was exciting. After a year of missionary work, a year and a half at the local university, I decided to transfer across country, transforming my relationship to a long-term relationship and embrace the frigid temperatures of Minnesota. It was my first time living away from home. I took on more classes, worked as many hours as possible and struggled to make it work with my boyfriend.
Challenges that were once thrilling began to morph into something I could not manage. I didn’t choose that emotion, that crippling, overwhelming, clouding emotion of stress and anxiety. Walking through the living room, seeing pillows out of place, the emotion happened to me. Thomas Aquinas, medieval philosopher and theologian, refers to emotions as passions. They can happen before we’ve had a chance to think. Why that combination of event and passion occur have to do with our personal beliefs and decisions we must make. According to cognitive psychology, our beliefs are a framework, a lens through which we see the world. While they might not make sense intellectually, through the lens, emotions can begin to make sense.
Why the pillows? I sought order. I sought control as I felt I was spinning out of control with an overloaded schedule and an uncertain future.
Stress and anxiety, which are related to fear, have to do with the future. They come from a fear that something will be difficult or impossible to overcome. And yet, there is hope. If I had no hope at that time, I would have fallen into despair or depression.
Thus fear/anxiety/stress can be beneficial. These passions push us forward to either learn caution or take action. I had to learn to manage these emotions. I had to learn my limitations in time management. I had to prioritize certain uncomfortable conversations in my relationship in order to move us to a healthier place.
But why does it have to hurt so much? With anxiety comes the racing heart, the pounding chest, the shortness of breath. Blood rushes from the heart to the extremities. It’s like being ready to attack something or to run away. By pure instinct, our ancestors were able to respond to external threats without needing to take the time to process the situation mentally. We experience this fight or flight response, but with totally different “threats.” Unable to respond physically, our reaction turns to anxiety.
Those threats are related to fear. Our fear can transfer from the thing at the heart of the fear, the primary emotion, to some other object or person involved. If I fear loss of safety, I become afraid of the aggressor. If I fear loss of love (rejection), I may fear confronting my partner.
Sometimes we’re afraid because the thing we fear seems so much bigger than us. Its magnitude implies its power. It implies we have less control. Ask yourself, how much control do I have in this situation?
Confronting the primary emotion can alleviate the anxiety involved by giving us the power to plan and possibly face the fear. As we gain control or can plan, hope of overcoming the difficulty increases. Thus the anxiety can become something more helpful.
This process takes time and reflection. I might be a natural at this sort of meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) but it’s incredibly common to need a little outside help, someone with a clearer lens to help figure out what the primary emotion or fear is.
I experienced anxiety like never before. My first step was to go to the doctor. It’s possible to have hormonal imbalances that create the physical feelings of anxiety. If that were the case, medication to treat the hormonal imbalance would be the answer.
When the blood tests came back clear, I sought out a therapist. He taught me to ask myself, “what is the worst that could happen?” This question worked for me. I was afraid of failure, of everything falling apart. This question targeted the cognitive or thinking side of the anxiety for me, going after the lens through which I saw a situation. Life coaches, mentors, and people of wisdom in your life can help in a similar way, depending on the severity of what you’re experiencing. Meditation and gratitude exercises are other ways to target the thoughts behind anxiety.
From a professor of psychology I learned relaxation techniques: deep breathing and progressive relaxation. To engage in deep breathing inhale deeply through the nose, counting slowly, holding for a moment, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth. This method resets the fight or flight response by slowing the heart rate, blood flow and taking control of speed of one’s breathing. It goes after the physical side of anxiety. Progressive relaxation, exercise, and yoga are other ways to regain control in this area.
The experience of fear and stress is part of being human. To learn to manage it, to make it work for you rather than overwhelm you, will take time and some times outside help. But there is way out. There is hope.