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Dealing with Anxiety

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07/16/2015

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"Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength."

I love this quote! But sometimes we have to ask ourselves … now what? How are we supposed to deal with the natural anxieties of life? I think we can begin to answer that question by understanding the mechanisms of anxiety.

Anxiety is a three-part process. The first stage is the assessment. I have a few kids, and it's amazing to watch how they assess the same situation in such different ways. When they all see a big heavy dog walking toward us on the sidewalk, for example, they respond differently. The youngest smiles and reaches out her hand to pet him. Another is apprehensive, but also wants the chance to pet the dog. Another has now crossed the street to retain a 200-foot distance at all times from being anywhere near what she assesses as a situation with a potentially vicious monster. We all assess life situations differently, and that assessment is the first stage of setting up whether it's going to be a moment of anxiety or not.

The second stage is the feeling of being an outsider, or a foreigner. This is a sense of discomfort. In an abstract sense, it's a feeling of insecurity. When experiencing anxiety, we start to feel unsafe and scared in our own skin. Where we used to feel security, we now feel discomfort.

The third stage is when we retract into ourselves. This actually happens physiologically with our blood going to our vital organs, and it also happens emotionally. We are no longer able to connect with the world outside of us; we are cut off from whatever is going on around us. We don't have the relaxed comfortable presence of mind required to think outside of ourselves.

Interestingly, these three stages are alluded to in one Hebrew word, "gur." Although the word is used in reference to fear (see Numbers 22:3), the word actually has three meanings according to the Midrash, a compilation of the philosophical teachings of Talmudic Sages. These three meanings are: "assessment of danger," "foreign," and "to gather in." They correspond directly with the three stages of anxiety.

In terms of the first stage, if we can reassess the situation through another lens, we may see that it's not as dangerous as we thought. A simple tool would be to ask a friend for their opinion. You might be surprised at what others see as danger or not.

Regarding feeling foreign and insecure, you can combat that by being proactive to do things that make you feel more secure. These can be as simple as checking in with a loved one, calling home, hanging out with friends, texting your sibling, or spending time with your special someone. Do some self-exploration, and try to figure out what it is that makes you feel really secure and comfortable inside (thriller rollercoasters may not be the first option here).

The third stage of disconnect can also be remedied. Similar to the second stage, we need to make special efforts to connect with others. That's not always easy to do when in a state of fear or anxiety, but it is all the more so important. Our friends, family, and community provide us with the stability and support to make it through trying times. As the eternal song of the early '80s taught us, "For good times and bad times, I'll be on your side forevermore. That's what friends are for!"

I don't think we'll ever reach a place of looking forward to anxiety to deal with. However, when those moments come up, I hope we can provide each other the support, love, perspective, and understanding to make it through them. And hopefully we'll come out with even better tools for life in assessment, security, and connections.

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