From Foe to Friend: Embracing Your Anxiety for Positive Change

Your heart is pounding. There's buzzing in your ears. You feel like the world is imploding and exploding all at once. A surreal feeling takes hold of you -- you're in the midst of an anxiety attack. Anxiety is a complex process that can be triggered by external stimuli, sensory perceptions, and conscious or unconscious thoughts that lead to physiological responses. While researchers still aren't exactly sure what causes "unfounded" anxiety, further understanding of how it works has led to advances in non-drug therapies that allow sufferers to cope with their symptoms and reactions, and embrace normal lives.

Guess What? You're Not Alone

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 18.1 percent of the U.S. population (about 40 million people) experiences an anxiety disorder in any given year. That's about 1 in every 8 people, making it likely that any one of the people sitting near you at work, walking down the street or living in the same building is also going through what you are.

Although each case of anxiety may present differently, all can cause sufferers to feel as though they are "weird" or that there is something wrong with them. Because anxiety is not a physically obvious problem, many people are embarrassed to admit that they are experiencing the symptoms of the disorder.

No one is immune to anxiety. There are many factors that can contribute to one person developing an anxiety spectrum disorder while another won't ever experience it. Genetics, personal history, trauma, health issues -- all of these and more can contribute to the development of anxiety.

The Different Faces of Anxiety

To complicate matters, anxiety isn't one-size-fits-all condition. It doesn't take the same shape in everyone. Over the past couple of decades, researchers have learned more about the nature of anxiety and have been able to break it down into specific groupings or categories. There are seven recognized forms of anxiety disorders: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social Phobia and Specific Phobia.

Own Your Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural physiological and mental response to real or perceived danger. Obviously, the vast majority of times that an anxiety attack strikes, there is no actual danger present. On that rare occasion when it is triggered by a "real" threat, it comes in pretty handy for keeping you out of harm's way. Believe it or not, you have a unique opportunity to take your anxiety and make it work for you rather than against you.

Mindfulness has been shown to be an invaluable tool for addressing anxiety before it can take control. An ancient practice, mindfulness pulls you into the moment -- it encourages you to objectively observe what's going on around you. At the same time, you are accepting any thoughts, feelings or sensations as part of the process, rather than judging -- and thus perceiving -- them as harmful. When you "demystify" these triggers, your response to them becomes less pronounced. The moment you're able to accept the anxiety itself as a natural -- albeit sometimes falsely triggered -- response, the easier it will be to move through the waves of fear and self-doubt.

It's best to learn mindfulness in a class, workshop or one-on-one session, as you can ask questions and get a better understanding of the premise behind it. Many coaches will lead you through situational exercises that further deepen your understanding and mastery of mindfulness techniques. Those that practice mindfulness regularly marvel at how easily they can turn anxiety into an asset instead of a burden.

If you suffer from anxiety in any form, you owe it to yourself to lead the life you want to, rather than one dictated by your anxiety. Take advantage of the benefits of counseling and mindfulness and make your life your own again!


Written by: Katie Sandler