Anxiety has two faces

The Two Faces of Anxiety: And How to Choose Wisely

“The truth is that there is no actual stress or anxiety in the world; it’s your thoughts that create these false beliefs. You can’t package stress, touch it, or see it. There are only people engaged in stressful thinking.”
Wayne Dyer

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.

People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.

Although unpleasant, occasional bouts of anxiety are natural and sometimes even productive: By signaling that something isn’t quite right, anxiety can help people both avoid danger and make important and meaningful changes.

Persistent, pervasive anxiety that disrupts one’s daily life can be the mark of an anxiety disorder. Nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. will grapple with either generalized anxiety or panic disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the condition strikes more women than men.

The techniques that I’m about to reveal to you have helped thousands of people to overcome basic to advanced and even severe anxiety, all because it has to do with the seeds that we have planted at the unconscious.

Our first step is to “reframe” the emotion, that is, to see it from a different, more resourceful perspective. 

When we feel anxious, we are imagining a bad outcome for something that hasn’t happened yet, right? We might be setting our goals, and working really hard toward the results we want. But if we’re anxious and worried about it, somewhere in our minds we’re imagining the result that we don’t want. Some part of us believes that the worst is poised out there waiting to happen, and will bring us pain and disaster.

Think about it: Why would you be anxious about paying next month’s rent? It’s because part of you believes you might not come up with enough money to pay it. Why would you be anxious about an upcoming work interview? It’s because somewhere you have the image of yourself failing miserably. Why would you be worried about camping outdoors? It’s because you’re considering the possibility of encountering a bear.

“But wait a minute,” you say, “I’ve had those bad things happen to me in the past. It’s just common sense to think they might happen again in the future.”

Ask yourself this: Do you really want the failures of your past to determine your future? That’s what you’re doing when you apply past experiences and project them into the future with your anxiety.

Early in my directing and producing career, I woke one morning so overwhelmed with running two major arts festivals in two different states, and a regional theatre running three concurrent musicals with run-outs to other cities that I experienced my first (and thankfully last) full-blown anxiety attack.

I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, and felt like I was dying!  I found my way out, slowly, by repeating “It’s okay, everything is going to be okay” over and over again, and trying to create a picture of what that meant, to crowd out the other horrible representations I was having.  It took forever!  I vowed I would never experience that again.

I was missing several key insights that would later allow me to manage experiences that would otherwise be extremely “Stressful” with relative calm, a good sense of humor, and still be happy. 

We only feel anxiety over something that has not yet occurred. 

First, it’s worth noting that the emotion of anxiety, unlike the other major negative emotions, is the ONLY emotion that is created “in the future.” 

Just as you cannot feel fear, anger, sadness, from an event in the future, (one that has not happened yet), you cannot feel anxiety from an event in the past.  I’ll get back to this point later.

Secondly, from a neurological standpoint, anxiety is virtually the same emotion as excitement.  Brain scans of subjects in extreme anxiety were nearly indistinguishable from subjects undergoing great excitement. The difference is in our interpretation. 

This means that the only significant difference between anxiety and excitement is how we contextualize and label it. 

My next brush with severe anxiety came years later as I was directing a complex 30-million-dollar interactive walk-through attraction for a major motion picture studio. 

Minutes before opening, with national media coverage, the computerized sequencing of automatic doors that led from scene to scene was not working.  If the timing wasn’t exactly right, the throughput would “caterpillar,” in other words, a show-stopping traffic jam of people and a total fail – nationally televised!   

By turning my attention from the disabling thoughts of catastrophic artistic and financial failure, to an internal representation of it as a suspenseful and exciting (and ultimately successful) experience.  I brought to mind a favorite scene from the 1987 film Broadcast News. 

In the film, a plucky, diehard network producer played by Holy Hunter attempts to have her technician Bobby prep and rewind a tape to hand off for a feature to go live, with only seconds until air time.  The tech makes a mistake, costing more time, and Holly’s character, perched over his shoulder, can only say, “Bobby-Bobby-Bobby-Bobby-Bobby…”   

That day, I was Holly Hunter, perched behind my computer programmer in the control room as he tried to re-code the sequence while an unforgiving German media had cameras trained on the event doors ticking down the seconds.  I actually said, “Bobby-Bobby-Bobby-Bobby-Bobby…”  (that wasn’t his name). 

We got the sequence up with seconds to spare, just like in Broadcast News.  Oddly, It was my favorite memory of that show!

Anxiety is putting the cart before the horse.

As an improvisor and teacher of improv for so many years, I have developed a comfort level with the high-stakes unknown.  Improv is always being on the razor edge of not knowing what comes next or whether it will succeed or fail.   

It has been said that improv is like a person walking backwards; they know where they have been, but not where they are going. And, sometimes they are running backwards! 

Improv may be a way of life for those in the field, but life itself is an improv, isn’t it?  Aren’t we all walking (or running) backwards?  Try it sometime and you will experience the same sensations that anxiety brings up, a sense of danger, uncertainly, nervousness and fear. 

Dropping my daughter off at grade school, we would watch a classmate of hers who lived close enough to walk the few blocks to school on his own. This kid would actually walk backwards, the whole way.  Every day.  He became known to us as, “walkin’ backwards kid,” for obvious reasons. 

We never knew why walkin’ backwards kid did what he did, but we had to assume it was because he enjoyed it.  So, you see, it’s all a matter of perception. 

The key that I found was that anxiety is just another name for adventure. 

My daughter would occasionally get anxiety over an abrupt change of plans.  When she was very young, and we were going on a trip, or an important errand, she didn’t always have a comfortable grasp of what was going on, she would start to fret and ask a lot of rapid questions, and begin to upset herself with a string of “what ifs”.  “No!… but why…but who…but how… What’s going to happen!?”

I’d smile and give a big shrug and say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, isn’t that great?!  Do you know what that is?  Do you know what that’s called??  It’s an Adventure!”  Then in my best superhero voice I would declare, “’Cmon Madi we’re going on an ADVENTURRRE!!  

It would fry her little brain for a moment, but she would stop, consider it, then calm down and begin to enjoy it.  What I was doing was giving her a big reframe of anxiety to excitement.

A friend of mine has a saying that she will use whenever someone is fretting and having anxiety over an impending “shit-storm.”  She’ll say, “Yeah, but we’re going to have a great story to tell!”

Anxiety vs Worry

Many people confuse anxiety with worry, or simply don’t differentiate between the two. They are different. There are strategies for worry that I will handle in another post, but for now, if you find you cannot readily differentiate the two in your head, take a quick look at this PDF I put together for you called, Anxiety vs Worry.

©Marvel Studios 2019
Take these steps to use the reframe method for anxiety:
  1. Stop what you are doing and take several deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  2. Plant your feet, stand up straight and relaxed, chin up, and present your best superhero pose.
  3. Know that the emotion and physical sensations you are feeling are the potent and delightful sensations of anticipatory excitement.
  4. Say out loud to yourself: “I am excited.  I am excited!  I am excited!!
  5. Give your experience a positive label by saying something like: “This is going to be an adventure,” or, “I am going to have an awesome story to tell.”  (Feel free to use your superhero voice.)

At the top of this article I mentioned that anxiety is the only emotion experienced from a future event.  This second method utilizes this fact and is a powerful one for more severe and deeply conditioned anxiety response. 

The way we do this is to dissociate from the representation we create for a future event based on past failures, and shift that to a positive representation.

Since we know that we cannot feel anxiety from the past, we simply need to play with our timeline.  Your timeline is the storage facility at the unconscious level that keeps track of everything that’s happened in the past, and everything that’s going to happen in the future.

Mental Emotional Release® is an unconscious congruency technique that I use for a number of issues, including PTSD, phobias, emotional baggage and limiting beliefs. I also use it to release anxiety, overcome future based fear of things turning out in a negative way, and project positive outcomes into the future.

It is a little too involved to explain here, so I have created an online “mini course” in Anxiety Release just for you.  I’ll take you through the whole process.  Don’t worry, it’s completely FREE. 

Let me repeat that, it is absolutely free. 

It’s one module of a full course on Steps to Emotional Mastery that I am currently developing, but it has been so effective that I just want to get it out there and help people root out this pervasive, and oh so solvable problem, for most people—most of the time. 

Once you learn this technique you will be able to do it for yourself, anytime you feel anxiety on an issue or event coming on.  It is simple and it works immediately.  You can even teach others how use it.

Sign up here to be put on a waiting list to be notified when the Mini Course on Anxiety is complete and ready for enrollment. (Yep, this site is new, don’t worry, we won’t forget you!)