Why Anxiety Doesn't Define You
Does anxiety define you? Do experiences determine who we are? These are questions that have been bugging me for the past week as I've talked to friends who experience anxiety and read about others who do as well. For many, reaching out to a therapist or even just feeling anxiety frequently leads them to define themselves by anxiety. Anxiety shifts from an experience they have to a label that globally identifies them as "disordered" or "messed up," and these negative labels, in turn, can exacerbate anxiety.
I've written previously about reframing anxiety but I haven't discussed how to avoid these negative labels that are so pernicious. In my experience, labels begin when we stop seeing anxiety as an isolated experience and start to think of it as an inevitable experience. When we expect something to continue in perpetuity, it stops feeling like an event we define and becomes an event that defines us, often in negative ways. We shift from, "Why did that experience make me so anxious?" to "Why am I always so anxious?", and this pattern of self-labeling becomes more entrenched and damaging. At this point, it's difficult to believe that anxiety doesn't define you.
Here's Why Anxiety Doesn't Define You
So how do we disrupt this process? How do we come to believe anxiety doesn't define us? It can be really challenging to change the way we think, particularly so for anxiety, but getting rid of labels can be a truly positive process that improves how we conceive of ourselves and the problems we face. Here are a few ways of thinking about your anxiety less as a negative label and more as a normal experience.
- Anxiety is a normal process. One detail that is often lost on us is that anxiety is a generally beneficial, adaptive experience, and is meant to be protective. Although we can experience too much anxiety, to the point that it becomes maladaptive, it is still the same underlying process that everyone experiences. So when we start talking to ourselves with phrases like "I'm an anxious person" or "My life is defined by anxiety," what we're really noticing is that we are human like everyone else. Shifting to this idea of anxiety as a natural (albeit distressing) part of life can help break down negative labels related to it.
- Anxiety is a changeable experience. When we get anxious about the same thing over and over, it becomes tempting to define ourselves by that anxiety. For example, someone with a phobia of flying might say "I'm anxious about flying," which doesn't leave much room for that label to change. In reality, a fear of flying can transform (or be eliminated) over time, like all phobias, and recognizing that potential for change can be crucial for achieving change. When we invest belief in the idea that we cannot change our anxiety, we stop taking steps to achieve that change.
- Anxiety is not universal. When we are anxious, it feels like there never has been and never will be a time when we are not anxious. However, when we look at our lives more closely, it becomes clear that actually there are a lot of times when we aren't anxious at all. Because anxiety is such an intense experience, our tendency is to universalize that experience even though it may only occur for brief moments in a day. When I experienced frequent panic attacks, I felt like my life was defined by panic -- at least until I realized my panic attacks actually only took up about 10 minutes of my day. When I noticed this, it became clear to me that I had been defining myself by a tiny portion of my day instead of the vast majority of my day, and this gave me the perspective I needed to begin changing my understanding of panic.
Overcoming the label of anxiety can be a frustrating and challenging experience, but ultimately it is a hugely satisfying and meaningful change in perspective. We are more than our momentary experiences, and the more we embrace the multiplicity of our lives, the less anxiety will have a hold over us. Anxiety doesn't define you even when it feels like it could.
I hope these ideas help you live life fully and joyously. Thanks for reading, please share your thoughts about how anxiety doesn't define you below.
Abitante, G. (2019, May 19). Why Anxiety Doesn't Define You , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/5/why-anxiety-doesnt-define-you
Author: George Abitante
I absolutely love this reminder -- "anxiety is a generally beneficial, adaptive experience, and is meant to be protective". I always say that anxiety is really just there to be a guideline, it's something we can work with and see as a positive. The suggestions to also be aware of repeated stories, and thinking of anxious experiences as never ending are also so helpful. We always have the ability to change our patterns and behaviors and anxiety falls into this. Beautiful read.
Thanks so much for your comment! I really like your description of anxiety as a guideline, I hadn't considered that phrasing before but it is a phenomenal way to describe it.