7 min read

Healing Your Relationship With Anxiety

We assume fear is here to tell us to just keep everything the same, don’t push forward, don’t take the risk! But what if this isn’t true?
Healing Your Relationship With Anxiety
Photo by Scott Goodwill / Unsplash

Life has a lot of scary moments. Even outside of trauma, we experience moments of basic, everyday fear and its close cousin, anxiety. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a client tell me that they believe their fear or anxiety is holding them back. Holding them back from going after their goals, engaging in their relationships, and living their lives fully. 

We’ve been conditioned to view fear as a hindrance, a barrier that stifles our progress. And this makes sense. 

We have these things we want, and the way fear and anxiety shows up for a lot of us is in the words of everything that will go wrong when we try to go after it.

So naturally, we fight it. We think the fear is holding us back, and when it shows its face, it becomes our enemy.

But what if we’ve been looking at it all wrong? 

What if fear isn’t an enemy at all?

The Nature of Fear

Fear is a natural response when we’re venturing into new territories and taking on novel challenges. 

Most people have access to fear. Those who don’t, tend to have high levels of sociopathy. 

This tells us something: fear is a healthy response. 

A response to what, though?

Perceived threats to safety. 

And if our body survived yesterday with life being as it is, changing things naturally creates risk.

Going after goals, changing our relationships, and changing our circumstances is all risky stuff. 

But this is a part of life. We evolve. And many of us are going after different lives than the ones we're living right now.

So risk is inherent to living.

Therefore, so is fear.

The Misinterpretation of Fear

Even when we consider our understanding of fear above, we assume this means fear is here to tell us to just keep everything the same, don’t push forward, don’t take the risk!

But what if this isn’t true?

In my work with my own fear and anxiety, as well as my work with clients, I started to get curious about fear. 

What if we have the wrong impression?

We (clients and I) started to literally ask fear and anxiety if they really intended to hold us back. We would ask this question internally, and just listen for what came up. (You can try this now). 

And what happened?

Fear and anxiety never wanted to hold us back from living full, healthy lives.

They didn’t want to hold us back from pursuing our goals, having fulfilling relationships, or any of that. 

Fear and anxiety wanted us to achieve all of those things, without setting fires or sabotaging along the way. 

Fear and anxiety wanted to avoid danger, yes.

But avoiding dangers didn't mean to stop living altogether.

What they really wanted us for us to prepare. 

They were trying to help us, all along. 

Fear Escalates into Anxiety

Fear just wants to be a partner in risk assessment. That’s its job, to alert us to threat and keep us safe. 

When we ignore these warnings or fight against them, we actually get ourselves into trouble. Making decisions that do, in fact, lead us into the troubles that fear was trying to warn us of to begin with. 

When fear is used to being ignored or fought against, it can’t just quit its job and apply for a new one. 

Instead, stuck in the job it has, it grows louder and more persistent. 

It becomes anxiety, then, in extreme cases, it becomes panic. Fully stopping our body in its tracks. 

So it turns out, this notion of fear being an enemy is actually a huge contributor to our anxiety. 

And as someone who, a couple years ago, was offered a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, and was battling my anxiety every day…

This was also huge news to me.

And it helped me figure out how to approach fear differently.

Befriending Fear & Anxiety

When I tell someone else I’m afraid or anxious, telling me to suck it up, or to fight against me on it, are pretty terrible responses. They don't help at all.

The absolute worst response is telling me to “just calm down”.

Another terrible response is to say my anxiety is here “for no reason” — which is one of our favorite things to say about it before we even hear it out or reflect on it.

What’s actually helpful when I'm feeling anxious or fearful is:

  • Hearing me out & taking my pain seriously
  • Having compassion and understanding for what’s coming up for me
  • And helping me gain some clarity and assurances that I’m genuinely safe, that I can handle the worst case scenario that I’m dreaming up in my head, or that I’m actually right that this is something to be afraid of. 

What’s helpful is when the other person shows my fear and anxiety things like respect, understanding, and support. 

Being treated with some basic dignity and empathy is soothing. Go figure, yeah?

Therefore, this is how I started to treat my own anxiety. With the same respect, understanding, and support I wanted from others. 

This required me to first have a different baseline understanding of my anxiety & fear response in general:

Like a partner in risk assessment, it’s doing its job. Alerting me of potential dangers. And, since I hadn’t allowed it or supported it in doing its job before, it was over-achieving right now to try to get me to finally hear it.

That became okay to me. Understandable. I finally had compassion for this overactive fear response of mine.

My job was to hear it out, understand it, provide assurances and guidance.

And there are different levels of assurances and guidance I ended up providing that helped consistently.

The First Level of Assurance

Sometimes assurances looked like letting anxiety know that we’re safe right now. 

Not to dismiss it. 

But moreso like when your kid tells you there’s a monster under the bed. You don’t just tell them it’s all in their heads and turn off the lights and let them deal with it.

No, you take them seriously enough to check under the bed.

And then you say, “no, I checked. You’re safe. We’re all safe. And if anything happens you come get me and I’ll check again. I will always protect you, okay?” 

This is the first level of assurance. Actually hear it out, check, and if everything’s safe, say “see? I checked. We’re safe.” 

Second Level of Assurance

The next level of assurance is to actually sit down and plan for how you’re going to be safe and take care of yourself should the future issue come about. 

Anxiety is worried about being embarrassed or humiliated if you put yourself out there?

Don’t tell it that won’t happen or dismiss it and say "well we'll survive. We always do".

It knows that already. It's been here for the whole ride. Maybe it's less worried about survival and more worried about the inner critic kicking its ass if you embarrass yourself.

Hear it out.

And when you do, meet it where it's at and say, if that does happen, here’s what we’ll do to make sure we’re okay. I promise I won't let the inner critic beat us up over it. I'll talk to inner critic about how we can handle it differently this time.

This is much more soothing to anxiety. 

It’s also enlightening. Fear and anxiety aren't stupid. They remembers all those times you struggled to handle embarrassment and humiliation in the past. It remembers how your inner critic raged agains you. It’s calling you home to learn from those examples how to have a healthier response moving forward. 

Hear it out. 

Third Level of Assurance

The third level of assurance is to literally just heed the warning. 

Fear and anxiety can be right and calling your attention to a danger you legit just want to avoid.

When you ignore it or dismiss it, feeding into the stigma that anxiety is here "for no reason" - it doesn't help you or the anxiety.

Actually, the more I developed my relationship with my fear, the more I realized how right it often is. 

And I learn to just say “nope, I don’t want to do that. That would be bad for my health,” and move on. 

Remember to Thank It 

Like I said, fear at any level is a healthy thing to possess and its here to protect you. None of us do perfect on the job, but it means a lot that we’re still showing up and willing to learn and work with the team. 

Thank your fear for showing up, giving you a heads up, and trying to support you and be a part of the team. Thank it for sticking it out while you worked to realize its true value.

And then guide it with the assurances as your nervous system learns what safety does and doesn’t look like. 

The Outcome 

One of the biggest issues with fear and anxiety isn’t the feeling itself, so much as how we react to it. 

When we learn to see fear and anxiety as helpful partners in our safety, our reaction to it softens, which softens the overall experience. 

Then, over time as we learn to work with it, assure it, and guide it, it stops alerting us to things we don’t consider dangerous. It aligns more with how we actually want to assess and respond to threats. 

We develop a more trusting relationship with our fear and anxiety. And the symptoms of anxiety actually soothe over time, the stronger that trust becomes. 

Eventually, we notice more basic fear responses, and less anxious ones. 

And when the anxiety does pop up, we understand that it’s doing so for a reason. And we're able to work with it in ways that feel way, way better than what we're used to.