This may come as a shock to some of you, but even therapists have experienced difficult emotions such as anxiety, depression, shame, despair, grief, and fear. They have had caustic inner critics, have wrestled with imposter syndrome, and have intimately known sleepless nights. They have experienced loss, death, disappointments, and failure.
I assure you I am speaking from my own experience, and certainly do not know for sure that what I am saying applies to 100% of all therapists out there. I am hoping that by sharing this, it provides a feeling of safety, connection, and encouragement. You can do this. You can heal. You can overcome your anxiety or depression. It’s hard. I know it’s hard. I am not telling you this to make you feel minimized or unimportant. I am saying this to make you feel more human.
Something that has really helped me overcome my fears and work on improving my own mental health has been learning that others have felt just as dejected and hopeless, and yet have been able to find ways to heal and experience life differently. Many great teachers and healers have struggled with deep, dark mental states. To name a few: Eckhart Tolle experienced feeling suicidal, Byron Katie was addicted to codeine and alcohol and also experienced feeling suicidal, and Marsha Linehan spent 2 years in an inpatient mental health establishment as a young adult. Each of them today has led, taught, and inspired so many people to believe in themselves and change their lives. All of them are authors. It is truly amazing what we are capable of, and it’s never too late to change. The challenge is never too great.
Because of the impact their stories (and others like them) have had on me, I felt moved to talk about a little part of my own relationship with mental health, with the hopes that by doing so it can help to humanize and de-stigmatize mental health challenges. I am not touting that I am a great leader, but as a trained therapist I do realize I occupy the role of a mental health expert in society. The same way that I would call a plumber if I had a plumbing emergency, someone would call me if they had a mental health challenge. It may be helpful to know that, even with years of study (both formal and informal) in psychology, I still have had to “work” on my own mind.
Anxiety has been a player in my life and has historically been an incredibly painful, frustrating, and overwhelming experience. I think some of us may be more prone to anxiousness based on our biology, meaning we are more sensitive to changes in the world around us. This, combined with unsupportive circumstances in our home environment or peer interactions, gives anxiety permission to flourish and captivate our attention, most often at the critical moments when we need our full and confident connection to ourselves the most.
Anxiety is a feeling that tells us, “Something bad is about to happen. Or it could happen. Or maybe it is already happening, but I just don’t know it yet. I need to be completely vigilant and ready to protect myself.” In a way, we are protesting the moment. We don’t want to be there. But we might also know we need to be there. We are confused. It’s uncomfortable. We want something else to do. We seek a way to feel okay, because in those moments, we really don’t believe we are okay.
I’ve been in those places where my entire body feels like it is protesting against being where I am in the moment, even though it’s a place I might actually want to want to be (like with friends, in a restaurant, or at work). I want to be enjoying myself so much and yet I find myself tense, afraid, with an energy running through me akin to nails on a chalkboard.
I can also confidently say that my anxiety has reduced over the years. I have not only “coped” with the fact that I experience anxiety, but I have also found ways to feel better. This “feeling better” means that I am able to focus on my own physical experience and feel calm and relaxed, even when around other people. It has translated into not ruminating about every little thing that can go wrong, or has gone wrong, and trusting myself even in the absence of outward praise or reassurance. It has translated into taking risks I thought I was never “ready” to take. It has translated into the silencing of a chronic commentary on what value I have and why I am here.
What I wanted to provide was a list of six things that I do (full disclosure, six is a very arbitrary number) which have helped, and continue to help, reduce feelings of anxiousness and increase my access to other emotions instead such as contentment and joy. It’s been a process, like most things in life, which has gained momentum the more I chipped away at it. Of note, I did not add things to the list like exercise, eating well, and a good sleep routine, which I find most people already know are really helpful for supporting our emotional and mental well-being.
1. When I notice the critical voice in my head, I try to be relentlessly and ruthlessly kind to myself instead. I shower myself with inner reassurance, even when I don’t believe it. “You’re okay, you’re in the right place, you’re doing the right thing, there’s no other place for you to be, this is perfect right now, I know your intentions are good.” Trust me, sometimes this feels completely fake and in-genuine, but I also know that the critical shaming I am doing to myself otherwise feels awful and puts me on edge. Hearing a kind voice say, “No actually it’s not the end of the world, you’re okay and you’re doing a great job, this truly is difficult, and you’re doing a great job,” is one of the most comforting, reassuring, and relaxing things I could possibly hear. And practicing turning to this voice over and over has made it more automatic and accessible over time.
2. Practice relaxing my body. This might be in the form of deep breathing, shrugging my shoulders, relaxing my jaw, doing a body scan, putting a hand over my heart, or just the pure recognition of physical tension, which can sometimes be enough to make it shift a bit. I generally find that at any given moment, when I tune into my body, there’s some way to relax it just a little bit more. Doing this over and over and over again, day after day, morning, noon, and night, has made it more automatic and the sensation of “being relaxed” a lot deeper.
3. When I notice my thoughts running away from me, I try to practice focusing on the here-and-now. Yes, this can be difficult and yes, it takes some effort. What I do to focus on the here-and-now is that I pay attention to what I can perceive with my five senses rather than getting lost in the rabbit hole of thoughts. I might notice the color of the curtains in the room, the texture of the ground, the pattern on someone’s shirt, the sound of silence, and most importantly, where my own body is in space. I practice sensing my body sitting or standing, and any temperature, wind, or pressure that comes in contact with me.
4. Imagine something better. Generally, I find when my anxiety is ramping up, I am having make-believe conversations in my head where someone is judging me, accusing me of something I didn’t do, or is being unnecessarily mean to me or explosively angry. Of course, when I realize these are the scenes that I am anticipating to occur, it’s easy for me to understand why my anxiety is there. I try to interrupt this process when I see it happening and instead imagine something entirely more pleasant. I imagine people smiling at me, I imagine myself feeling good in the presence of others, and I imagine myself at the end of the day feeling satisfied and content.
5. Seeing my anxiety as a “part” of me rather than the entirety of me. Using the Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach to the human psyche, we can understand that the natural state of our mind is multiple. That is, we naturally have multiple parts to us, each of which can feel and experience our lives very differently. For example, a part of me might get really anxious because she is afraid of losing someone’s love, but it’s very important and helpful for me to recognize that I have other parts of me who can comfort her or help her to feel reassured. Calling it a “part” helps not only to dis-identify with the anxious part (or “unblend” as they say in IFS), but it also allows me to relate to her in a different way.
6. This last one I feel was an absolute critical ingredient for reducing and shifting my feelings of anxiety: really, fully believing we are all deserving of love, and then applying that belief to myself. When I asked myself if I thought each person deserves kindness, support, and love, no matter how lost they were in life, the answer I came to was, “Of course.”
I really wanted to walk my talk and figure a way to practice feeling unconditional love. This took time and practice and I had to face some deep-seated beliefs in the process. I played around with different images that helped me to feel a sense of being loved unconditionally, and one image that worked for me was to visualize that there was a great big light, like a great big sun, offering me unconditional love. It didn’t immediately make me feel wonderful, and it more just seemed like something doable, but eventually I was able to receive it without worrying that something would take it away or tell me I didn’t deserve it. Over time, I was able to practice this even when feeling embarrassment or self-doubt.
Those six practices have helped me work on reducing my anxiety, to the point where I feel I can interact with it and change it in the moment, rather than feeling it overwhelm my experience and being helpless to do anything but wait for it to pass. In certain circumstances, the anxiety is completely gone where it used to be.
I am hoping this could provide some comfort to anyone struggling with anxiety. It’s not something you have to carry day in and day out without any relief. Here I didn’t discuss any of the potential causes of anxiety; that is a whole other topic. Generally, we can find ways to trace our current experience of anxiety back to situations where we may have felt hopeless and afraid. Oftentimes this is what our present-day anxiety is trying to prevent us from experiencing ever again.
That said, I highly encourage anyone who is suffering from anxiety to see a therapist, because talking about causes of anxiety could potentially lead to difficult memories or painful historical experiences. If you do have a history of trauma, some of the above exercises I mentioned, like being in the here-and-now, may even feel scary and counterintuitive. In those cases, working with a professional can really help guide you through healing.
Oftentimes we see that our anxiety completely makes sense when we delve into what we truly expect and believe life is going to bring us. Anxiety is not something we should feel like we need to hide, avoid, and repress. When we do those things, our anxiety does not disappear, but instead causes us more distress (if not now, then later on). It can be reduced, it can be changed, and one big step is just giving voice to it.
- Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
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