Dr. Justin Hill was an officer in the U.S. Army prior to earning his doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts in 2008. He completed his clinical pre-doctoral Internship and post-doctoral Fellowship training at the VA Boston hospital where he was a Fellow at Harvard Medical... more
Anxiety is a very natural emotion that all humans experience. A certain amount of anxiety can be healthy and very helpful for us. Anxiety can be a powerful motivator for us to work just a bit harder at our craft, whether it’s preparing for a big presentation at work, practicing more free throws before the big game, or studying a little longer before an exam. It is also a good barometer for indicating what is important and meaningful in our lives. Imagine going through every day with absolutely no anxiety about anything. At first, that might seem wonderful! But the more thought that is given to this, the more many realize that life would be a bit boring with every activity feeling a bit the same. If anxiety is natural and even beneficial, why is it that we still do everything we can to try to hide it from others?
In a 10-week psychotherapy group that I facilitated three times per year for about seven years, the first exercise of the group’s first session would start by focusing on this very topic. With about ten participants sitting around a table, I would ask each group member, if they chose, to share their first name, a little bit about themselves, and something that they would like to get from the group. From start to finish, each introduction might have taken 30 seconds. Once everyone spoke, I would ask the group members to raise their hands if they were nervous completing this exercise. Sure enough, the vast majority of the group, if not everyone, would raise their hands. I would then ask them to raise their hand if they were so nervous that they didn’t even hear what the person immediately before them said because they were so focused on going next. Again, most would raise their hands, usually coupled with embarrassed chuckling. Finally, I asked the group if it seemed like others were nervous, or if they thought they were the only ones. This more open-ended question would often lead to an interesting discussion about how most believed they were the only ones in the room who felt nervous, or that perhaps others may have been nervous but not nearly as nervous as they were.
When exploring the great mystery that was the phenomenon of hiding our anxiety, many indicated that anxiety could be a sign of weakness and, if they were weak, they were vulnerable. In masking their anxiety, and putting forward a front of security, they would appear strong and “normal.” It’s interesting to note that an emotion such as anger, which is also healthy, can lead to destructive behaviors such as road rage, verbal or physical abuse in relationships, and other violent, unhealthy outcomes seem much more socially acceptable to show others. Again, perhaps this is because acting on our anger, despite being unhealthy at times, shows the world that we are “strong” and not vulnerable to being hurt.
In the group mentioned above, most shared that just “admitting” that they were nervous to others was a relief and a lifted burden. They felt more genuine. Additionally, hearing that pretty much everyone else was experiencing the same thing was also a significant relief. They were not “different,” “weird,” “weak,” or “abnormal.” They were reminded that they were simply human, and experiencing anxiety was simply a human experience, albeit uncomfortable. To help add to the experience, I would also share (very honestly) that I was nervous prior to and during the first session of every group I facilitated.
Often, if anxiety is seemingly overwhelming at times, it’s not because of the anxiety itself but it’s due more to our struggle with the anxiety. We tell ourselves it’s not okay to experience this very natural emotion, so we try to control it in order to both not feel it and to hide it from others. Anxiety can become much more manageable if we don’t spend so much energy fighting, masking, hiding, and minimizing it and we simply (but not easily!) remind ourselves that this is a shared human experience. It also becomes a natural exercise in compassion for ourselves and others who are having the shared experience.
The next time you find yourself anxious about something (which, if you are like most, it will be very soon) try to catch yourself if you notice that you are doing things to try to get rid of or minimize the anxiety. Instead, see if you can breathe, open yourself up to having the anxiety as it is, and maybe even get curious about how it actually feels and where in the body you are feeling it. Remind yourself that if you are anxious about something, likely most people would be anxious about the same thing. With practice, you might be surprised at how your relationship with your anxiety, and how you experience it, will start to change.
I have been practicing this for years both informally throughout each day and formally with a daily mindful meditation practice. I have noticed that though the anxiety doesn’t necessarily go away, it has become less like the clown from Stephen King’s IT, and more like the clown in McDonald’s commercials: kind of annoying and sometimes uncomfortable to watch, but ultimately harmless.