Using Anxiety as a Signal to Increase Emotional Health

Posted on April 10, 2018

Crazy Sharing

I was at my dentist’s office the other day when I heard the assistant, I’ll call her Emily, talking with the office receptionist. Emily asked her boyfriend to buy her an anxiety cube. My ears perked up when I heard the word “anxiety” so I asked how the cube worked and if she suffered with a lot of anxiety. She smiled sheepishly nodding yes. I told her I was a psychotherapist who teaches people how to ease anxiety and asked if she wanted me to share a bit of education that might help. She and the office receptionist both nodded yes.

Anxiety Is a Signal

I told them, “Anxiety is really a signal that we have one or more underlying core emotions, like sadness, anger, fear and even excitement, pushing up for expression. Emotions get blocked by anxiety when we previously learned from our cultures, families, or peer groups, that the emotion was not welcomed. For example, if when we showed fear to our parents, we were told not to be so weak, we would think twice before expressing our fear again. In that scenario, our brain would learn not to show fear less we would also be humiliated on top of afraid. From then on, any time the environment made us afraid, we’d feel anxiety instead.”

We block fears and other core emotions with muscular constriction, holding our breath, coming out of our body, and many other ways. So now, instead of experiencing our core emotions, we experience anxiety. In a way, knowing this is great news! Because now, when we have anxiety, there is something we can do to ease it: we can look for the underlying emotions. In fact, with practice, any time we feel anxiety, we will immediately remember to look for the underlying core emotions coming up and tend to them in healthy and safe ways.

The look on their faces was something close to enthralled. “Wow. That really resonates,” the receptionist said. I gave them my card with my writing website and invited them to check out some of my articles and YouTube videos to learn more about emotions. I thought it would help, I told them.

Using Anxiety as a Signal on Our Own and with a Therapist

Here’s another personal example of how understanding emotions helped me with my anxiety. I used to get very anxious at the thought of going to a funeral. When I learned about the biology of emotions and The Change Triangle, I realized I was anxious because I was blocking the sadness and grief that naturally arose when someone I knew died. Growing up, my family of origin didn’t do sadness. Instead, my mother worked hard to cheer me up. As a result, my child brain assumed it wasn’t ok to feel sad and I was supposed to be happy. From then on, every time something in the environment triggered my sadness, I’d get anxious instead. Once I learned it was natural to feel sad in response to losses, I was determined to get reacquainted with my sadness. I learned to welcome the experiences sadness brought up like wanting to cry or feeling heavy in my heart. My anxiety then went away.

As a psychotherapist, I help people who have been disconnected from their core emotions, sometimes for years, get connected to them again so they feel more vital and alive. When I first met Sally, she got anxious any time she felt angry. Through our connection and by teaching Sally techniques to lower anxiety such as grounding and breathing, she could connect to her anger again and use it wisely. Sally listened to what her anger was trying to tell her. She soon learned to use it to assert her needs and to set boundaries with her family so they could not take advantage of her.  

I love The Change Triangle, a practical tool to work with emotions instead of numbing or avoiding them. The Change Triangle guides us to identify the core emotions underneath our anxiety. We can then work with core emotions to not only reduce anxiety but listen to what the core emotions are trying to tell us (they are there for good reasons!) to thrive as best as possible under our individual life circumstances. Core emotions are, in fact, a compass for living.

Unfortunately, our schools and communities don’t yet educate people on how anxiety, depression, and other symptoms, are related to avoiding our core emotions. It’s on us to find information and educate ourselves. Knowledge is power. And when it comes to anxiety and emotions this is doubly true.

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Author: Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW

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