How to let go of anxiety
Note: In this blogpost, I refer to the feeling of anxiety, by which I mean that knot in your stomach that you can’t ignore when you feel uneasy about something. I am not an authority on clinical anxiety and this post is not intended as medical or therapeutic advice. If you have clinical anxiety, you should reflect on this post in the context of your treatment with your mental healthcare provider.
I have a mild form of generalized anxiety disorder.
On any given day, something will come up to which I will feel disproportionately uneasy.
Maybe I haven’t called my sister back after she called yesterday. Or I'm worrying about my finances even though they are fine right now. Or I'm in a tailspin about all of the items on my to do list that I haven’t gotten to.
Recently, a friend of mine exposed me to the idea of anxiety as “undifferentiated emotion,” that is emotion that we cannot actually pinpoint and that we therefore convert into a general anxious feeling with the assumption that something must be wrong.
I want to talk a little bit about this idea because I think it has a lot to offer us to help us let go of anxiety and live with more freedom.
My first thought when my friend shared this with me was:
“Great! So all I have to do to get rid of anxiety is to understand my emotions better and be able to pinpoint what’s going on!”
If I can name it, I thought, I can get rid of it.
Then I realized that I already do that.
I’m constantly analyzing my emotional life and trying to understand what exactly is bothering me. And it doesn’t help.
What does help is the opposite: allowing myself not to know why I am upset.
This shift has been nothing short of revolutionary.
Our brains are constantly picking up information and converting it into meaning. And our bodies are listening and responding accordingly. But 95% percent of brain activity is subconscious - we may not even know what we are thinking, much less why we are thinking it.
And if our subconscious tells our gut that something is wrong, we will physically and emotionally feel like something is wrong.
But what if there isn't an understandable, pinpoint-able reason or logic to your anxiety?
Usually, when you feel anxiety, you have a conversation with yourself along these lines: “Something’s wrong...it’s because of ‘x’...and ‘y’...and probably ‘abc,’ too. I don’t want that feeling, I need to make it go away.”
Instead, imagine saying to yourself: “I am feeling something! I don’t know exactly what or why, but it’s there....hello there, feeling!” And then practicing patience and compassion with yourself to just let things be.
Without fixing, without pushing away. Just acknowledging the feeling and sitting with it.
Because it isn't fixable if the reason is unknowable.
And that's the beauty of anxiety as undifferentiated emotion.
When we assume that we have a full grasp of our thinking and our feelings, we push away anxiety because it is "bad" and we try to calm it by "fixing" whatever is wrong. And we make it worse by scrambling to create meaning out of what we are feeling.
Admitting to ourselves that maybe we don't know exactly what is bothering us means we don't have to fix anything.
So how do you let go of anxiety?
1. Notice it.
2. Understand that it comes from a deep, unknowable place - straight from your subconscious self.
3. Give yourself permission to feel without understanding.
Practice not knowing. Practice allowing. Practice letting go.
Sometimes not understanding yourself is the most liberating act of all.
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