“I was on my way home from work, sitting in traffic listening to my favorite radio station. All of the sudden my thoughts started racing and my chest got really tight and I had difficulties breathing. For a moment I thought about driving to the emergency room. But then I remembered what the doctor said last time: ‘Your heart is fine. You just had an anxiety attack.’ How embarrassing.” Scott sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Everybody else seems to have it together.”
Just like my client Scott, anxiety may have made you feel at times trapped, powerless and flawed. And even if you happen to wake up without anxiety, you are already worried about when it will raise its ugly head again. Unfortunately, the more we fear our own anxiety the worse it seems to become.
One of the first and most important steps to overcome anxiety is to change your perception of it. I know that you can easily feel victimized by anxiety, which seems to attack you and overwhelm you out of the blue. But the truth is your mind, in particular your subconscious, creates your emotions, which is why your mind can also learn how to be in charge of them. The subconscious mind has two primary missions – to keep you safe and to make you happy. If you embrace anxiety as a message or an expression of that part of your mind, that has only your best interest at heart, chances are that you will much more easily learn to understand, appreciate and take ownership of this emotion. This is where the dog analogy can come in handy. So what exactly does anxiety and your Fido have in common?
Both want to protect you
Anxiety is neither a flaw or weakness, but a natural emotion, which has been preserved throughout evolution to keep us safe. Similar to when your dog is barking or growling, anxiety may feel annoying or scary, but its intention is not to harm you, but to make sure that you are ok. This is why you don’t want to abolish your ability to feel anxious, but instead learn how to calmly interpret and respond to this feeling.
Both frequently set off false alarm
Anxiety is an inner alarm signal, a little red warning light that gives you a heads up if there is something you need to be aware of. However, similar to a pup that raises havoc every time the postman drops off the mail, your inner warning system often becomes too sensitive and is then set off by the slightest triggers, even if they don’t pose any threat. You might interpret a frown on your boss’s forehead as a sign that you’re one step away from being fired. Or you might believe your spouse’s purchase of a new pair of sunglasses means you’re doomed to financial ruin. Over time, you are living more in a “what if” reality, than being able to perceive and appreciate what is positive and secure in your life right now.
Their patterns are shaped by their history
If you ever have rescued an abused dog from the shelter, you probably know that it takes some time for the animal to feel safe. Whenever there is a loud noise it may either bark or cower in the corner with its tail between its legs. Your subconscious mind keeps track of everything you experienced in life, even events you can’t consciously remember. If you have been dealing with trauma during your childhood or have taken on limiting beliefs, such as “I am not good enough” or “the world isn’t safe,” your subconscious mind will be more on alert and adamant to protect you.
They both need you to be in charge – with boundaries, guidance and rewards
A dog trainer once explained to me that most people don’t understand what braking is about. Ultimately it is a call to the leader of the pack to check out what he has detected and make an executive decision on how to handle the situation. If you shout “No, don’t bark,” or “Stop this” it sounds to Rex as if you are barking as well and thus corroborating his alert. A more appropriate response would be to make sure that it is just a false alarm, such as a car pulling up next door, and then to calmly reassure him with something like “Good job, but everything is ok,” while giving him a gentle pat. Since the dog asked the alpha, which is you, to give instructions on how to handle the situation, he feels now at ease and can go back to his other two favorite things to do - eating and taking a nap.
Assuming that our subconscious operates, in many ways, like the mind of a dog would be absolutely accurate and not at all degrading. Changing patterns through boundaries, guidance, and rewards are some of the basics of teaching and learning for any species. By learning for example how to redirect and counter-balance negative, anxiety-triggering thoughts with positive ones, or how to appreciate yourself on a daily basis, you’re taking back the reins and steering your subconscious mind into a new, more empowering and supportive direction.
When they are treated well, they both can become your best friends and allies.
Maybe this is most important aspect that your puppy and anxiety have in common. Like a guide dog anxiety can keep you on track and make you aware of the potential daily pitfalls that can get you out of balance. Anxiety can alert you when you give your power away, by taking someone or something personally, or by trying to please others, while ignoring your own needs. It can warn you, when you are about to act against your better knowledge, values or beliefs. And anxiety can make you aware of the fact that you may have not taken care of yourself, neglected your physical or emotional needs or put too much pressure on yourself.
There are of course more similarities between your canine and anxiety, such as, ”Both don’t get better, if you ignore them,” “If you are afraid of them, they get afraid of you” and “Both require consistency, commitment and compassion.” Yet the point is, to make peace with anxiety you need to avoid getting caught up in its emotional charge and instead decipher correctly the valuable information it has to convey and then, ideally, make appropriate adjustments. So next time you feel anxious, think about how you could be the leader, who calmly assess the situation and responds to your inner protector with kindness, reassurance and appreciation.