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Make friends with your anxiety beast

Your anxiety means well; it is trying to help you. You don’t need to fight it, says clinical psychologist and author Eric Goodman.

His just released book, Your Anxiety Beast and You (Exisle Publishing), is a compassionate guide to living in an increasingly anxious world.

Using the term ‘beast’ to describe ‘anxiety’ may initially sound antagonistic, but it was taken from the fairytale Beauty and the Beast where superficial looks can be greatly deceiving, says Goodman, who specialises in the treatment of anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and integrates compassion-focused therapy into his clinical work..

“Anxiety feels beastly at times, roaring loudly in your mind and through your body, but it is also greatly misunderstood. When you look beyond your gut instinct to run from it, you’ll see that it isn’t the malevolent force that it sometimes appears to be. In the end, your anxiety beast is designed to help and protect you,” he says.

At some point in our lives, most of us have had the experience of anxiety roaring like a ferocious beast in our minds, says Goodman. Yet, today’s culture places Zen peacefulness as the ideal to strive for. Anxiety is made out to be a beastly villain in your life’s story.

His book, Your Anxiety Beast, re-introduces anxiety in a whole new light to see that anxiety is not the villain, but the flawed hero.

“Anxiety is necessary for human survival,” says Goodman. “Rather than jumping on the cultural bandwagon that you can and must vanquish this normal and necessary emotion, my book focuses on changing your relationship with your inner anxiety beast. Rather than treating anxiety like your enemy (and getting that whole shame-suffering thing), you’ll learn to see it as your inner hero — your loud, smelly, hyperactive, not-too-bright, hero — who always means well.”

RESPONDING TO ANXIOUS THOUGHTS – HOW TO TALK SO YOUR BEAST WILL LISTEN

Your anxiety beast likes to blabber on about some danger or another. That’s its job. There are no limits to the kinds of things it will warn you about, such as:

Contamination

  • You might catch a fatal illness!
  • You might contaminate someone else – you could kill them!
  • You won’t be able to handle how yucky you’ll feel!

Body sensations

  • You might be having a heart attack!
  • You could pass out at any moment!
  • You could lose control and they’ll have to lock you up!
  • If you have a panic attack, you’ll die!

Uncertainty

  • What if you can’t tolerate these what if’s?!?
  • What if something bad happens?
  • What if you’re with the wrong partner?
  • What if your least favourite politician wins?

“If you understand that your beast is trying to help, you can accept these thoughts in the spirit with which they are being offered,” says Goodman. “Rather than clutching your head and internally screaming at your beast to just SHUT UP!, or behaving as if the anxious thoughts were facts, you can change how you relate to these thoughts. After all, anxiety thoughts are a normal and persistent part of life for most of us.”

Rather than taking these thoughts at face value … you can learn to respond to them in a more adaptive way.

This involves:

Accepting your noisy beast: Rather than engaging in a self-defeating 110 effort to rid yourself of a normal noisy human brain, acceptance means coming to terms with what you experience inside your own skin, at least for the moment.

Adopting a more compassionate inner tone: Changing your inner tone involves talking to yourself (and your anxiety beast) in a way that is compassionate and supportive rather than hostile or fear-driven. It is the hallmark of compassion-focused therapy.

Shifting your perspective: This involves seeing something in a new light. It is also called ‘cognitive reappraisal’.

Defusion: This involves detaching from a thought or refusing to even dignify it with an analysis. It is something Buddhists have been prescribing for 2500 years and is now a staple of mindfulness and acceptance-based psychotherapies, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Accepting your noisy beast

It would be such a delight to live a life where your anxiety beast only howls when the threat you are facing is real. Through no fault of your own, however, you are a member of an elite class of worriers – the human being.

This doesn’t mean that you are destined to suffer every time your beast is acting up. You can choose to behave in ways that decrease suffering in the short-term, while cultivating a better-behaved beast in the long-term.

“‘Anxiety-free’ is a fairytale created to sell books and hock various snake oils,” says Goodman. “Study after study shows that even the best and most effective treatments still leave residual anxiety intact. Even if it were possible to become completely anxiety-free, you would become greatly debilitated.

Problems arise, explains Goodman, when we teach our inner bodyguards that feeling anxious is a threat. Whatever your anxiety beast misperceives as a threat, it will treat as a threat. If anxiety itself is a threat, when life naturally brings you stress and worry, your beast will cry, Danger! in response — bringing the full weight of your powerful fight-or-flight-or-freeze response to counter the ‘threat’. This results in feeling anxious about feeling anxious. “If you teach your beast that anxiety is a normal part of a human life – that it’s not your fault, not your choice or design, and you are not alone in this – it is less likely to throw anxiety on top of your anxiety heap. And, you will be less likely to suffer from the anxiety that inevitably shows up.”

“Feeling anxiety is normal. Your anxiety is not an enemy. It’s about understanding what’s going on in your mind and what are solid ways of dealing with it.Anxiety is the brain’s way of trying to be helpful, but it’s doing this in a glitchy way. When it comes to coronavirus, for most of us the best thing we can do is to stay home on the couch and anxiety is therefore not needed in most cases now.,” says Goodman.

“A lot of people are anxious about feeling anxious. If you think that you can use some trick to be completely anxiety free, you will think you have failed. Don’t fight a tug of war with your anxiety. Anxiety will still happen and you can mitigate it by making anxiety a good home within your nervous system. Make your body as comfortable as you can with the anxiety to be there. Exercise, cut down on caffeine.”

Your Anxiety Beast and You book is now available as an e-book.

Main photo by Tonik on Unsplash

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