I have written about this before, but I believe anxiety is a misleading word. Anxiety has turned into a catch-all label for emotions and often interferes with finding solutions. If I say I am anxious for my sister’s wedding, what does that mean? Does it suggest that I am experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath, that my sister is probably marrying a serial killer, that I am nervous about finding the right words for the toast, or perhaps that I am anticipating feeling embarrassed because I don’t know how to dance and there could be dancing at the reception? When someone labels all of these things as anxiety it tells them that a) something is wrong with them and b) that they can stop trying to be more specific about their thoughts emotions, and behaviors.
Professionally I have found it a very difficult pattern to break. People actually seem comforted by having a label for what they are feeling that allows them to avoid going deeper. If you read my previous article, Practice Makes Perfect, you can see why this might be a problem. Continually labeling physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms as anxiety creates a brain superhighway called anxiety that then includes any indigestion, frustration, or anger that wants to hitch a ride. If instead a person who was able to engage in the introspection to determine that they feel a fluttery feeling in their chest when faced with unclear work expectations, fearing a high likelihood of guessing wrong and getting reprimanded, the situation is limited in scope and more easily treated.
I don’t want to appear to be blaming the emotionally upset person for their plight. This is a much broader societal issue that includes lazy communication skills, a preference for labels over individuality, and a victim role that is present in our society. Examples are everywhere in electronic social media.
So what can you do?
- Choose your words carefully. The words we use DO make a difference in how you and others think and feel. Are you eager for something? Say so. Don’t put in the word anxious. Are you feeling jittery? Say so. Are you terrified? Say so. How many words can you identify that would accurately substitude for the word anxious?
- Try to avoid saying “I am” anxious. Instead, try to say “I feel” or “I notice.” I feel suggests something that is time limited whereas I am suggests that it is permanent and unchangeable. These messages you are sending to yourself via thoughts and words are important.
- Step out of helplessness and victimization. Except in the rare circumstance, the emotions and thoughts are not happening TO YOU. You are not required to just accept whatever thought or feeling comes into your head. I want to be clear — your feelings are not wrong, but they also are not permanent. You can actively change your thoughts and engage in activities that will change your situation.
My older son, at a very early age, was able to tell his grandfather, “I not bad, it’s my ‘havior.” We all can take a lesson from this and say, “I’m not anxious, it’s just my thoughts or feelings.”