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Having anxiety without anxiety having us

Much attention has been given to stress and anxiety surrounding all we’ve experienced in 2020. Many are looking forward to turning the calendar—literally—on 2021.

There’s no guarantee of a magical change once January 1 rolls around. My hunch is we’ll still have to deal with a lot of stress and anxiety in 2021. If not from the pandemic, which will still be with us, there will be many other instigating events to stir our anxiety.

Rather than wishing on a star for deliverance from anxiety, a better approach seems to be to learn to work more effectively with our anxiety.

The goal is to learn to regulate our anxiety as effectively as we can.

We want to have our anxiety, rather than our anxiety having us.

The first step is to know what we are dealing with.

Just what is anxiety?

Many equate anxiety with worrying over specific circumstances--losing a job or having enough money to pay our rent. These are legitimate sources of anxiety.

But anxiety runs deeper. It is a core component of our emotional structure. We all possess anxiety. If not, there is serious pathology going on.

Anxiety is a basic instinct wired in us to help us survive. In its proper place, anxiety protects us from dangerous situations. When the tornado siren goes off, anxiety motivates us to head to the basement.

Anxiety also motivates us toward appropriate behavior. It gets us out of bed when the alarm clock rings because we know we cannot afford be late for work again.

Unfortunately for many of us, anxiety refuses to stay in its lane. Anxiety bleeds into other areas of life, hijacking our emotions and behavior, causing us to freeze, flee, hide, replay a situation in a continuous loop of thoughts, and a myriad of other responses.

Simply put, anxiety is our emotional response to any real or perceived threat.

When the threat is real, anxiety is our friend.

When the threat is a perception, anxiety can be a real bear.

Most of us are snagged by the perceived threats. We know too well that our perception becomes our reality in those moments.

Anxiety gets the best of us.

We are story tellers. We experience an event, and then we create a meaning of that event.

This is the story we tell ourselves. The story, the meaning, is the perception that cranks our anxiety.

For example, I’m parked in the grocery store parking lot waiting for my wife to finish shopping. I see you pull into a parking stall, get out of your car and walk toward the store.

I wave. I even honk my horn.

But you do not wave.

You don’t even look around.

You just keep walking.

There’s the event. Events are often benign. You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re just taking care of business.

The damage comes from the story I tell myself about you walking by, not looking and not waving.

What if I tell myself the story that you are purposely ignoring me? That story can quickly grow. “Why are you mad at me? What did I do to deserve this? Oh, I know. You think you’re better than me. It’s okay to be friends when no one is watching. But out here in public, you don’t want to be associated with me.”

And on it goes.

Now my anxiety is escalating. It can easily take over and drive me to all kinds of emotional discomfort that can lead to all kinds of inappropriate and ineffective behaviors.

What if I confront you about the snub? But you tell me you were preoccupied because you only had 5 minutes to get in and out of the store. You had tunnel vision and didn’t even hear the horn. You profusely apologize.

What is the story now? What is my emotional response?

Reality never changed.

The only thing that changed was my story; my interpretation.

To get a handle on anxiety, we first need to understand what we consider to be threats. What core fear is being poked in the moment? Why does that event trigger emotional discomfort?

The Enneagram provides us a remarkably accurate roadmap in recognizing and understanding our anxieties. While we hold universal fears and needs, each Enneagram Type frames and responds to them in their unique ways.

I’ll be exploring these patterns in future blogs.

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