• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

Inviting Your Anxiety Over for a Cup of Coffee


Making friends with my anxiety?


Inviting my anxiety over for a cup of coffee?


But I HATE my anxiety and want it to go away.


I hear you! But understanding how your anxiety works and why it is there is the key to master your anxiety. Read on to learn how this works!


Your brain does many fascinating things, but it is first and foremost designed to ensure our survival. Because of this, your brain contains structures to inform you of your bodily needs. For example, hunger tells you that you need food and tiredness tells you that you need sleep. Similarly, your anxiety isa message from your brain about your unmet needs.


As your brain’s hunger cues alert you that you are running low on fuel, your brain’s also has an alarm system that alerts it to potential danger - this is the anxiety system. Although anxiety is an uncomfortable emotion, it is actually an adaptive emotion. Anxiety is your friend, and when it is triggered it energizes you and empowers you to take committed, value-based action to avoid threats and move toward security.


Your body and mind have several innate responses to the alarm bells of anxiety going off:

  • Fight: resisting and conquering the threat

  • Flight: avoiding or escaping the threat

  • Freeze: attempting to go unnoticed by the threat

  • Fawn: appeasing the threat


Regardless of how your brain and body respond to a fear trigger, all of these innate responses serve the same function: survival. Whether it is a physical threat, such as a coyote chasing you on your hike or a social threat, such as being ignored or disapproved of by your partner or friend, your brain does not discriminate and it responds to all threats using one of these four methods to ensure survival. Let's look at how this plays out:

Fight

  • Coyote: attack and dominate him physically so he cannot hurt you

  • Friend/Partner: pick and argument, start a fight, use degrading language

Flight

  • Coyote: try to outrun him

  • Friend/Partner: withdraw and isolate so they cannot continue to hurt you

Freeze

  • Coyote: stay still and hope he doesn’t notice you

  • Friend/Partner: remain quiet and let them have their way so as not be viewed as a burden

Fawn

  • Coyote: Feed him some meat so he no longer wants to eat you

  • Partner: Appease them through codependency


In order to ensure your survival, your brain is wired to detect threats. When a threat is detected, you feel anxiety. Understanding this as the function of your anxiety can transform your relationship to it.

Anxiety is not an emotion you need to resist or run from, but rather a signal that something in your environment could potentially be a threat. Rather than trying to ignore, numb, or suppress your anxiety, a more effective strategy is to get curious about it. Invite your anxious thoughts in for a cup of coffee and listen to what they have to say.

As you do this, keep in mind that your anxious thoughts are not always accurate. Just like the smoke detector in your kitchen, your brain’s alarm system can sometimes detect “false positives” and send an alert even when there is no actual danger - it was just burned toast. Here are some guiding questions to help you make friends with you anxiety, ask why it's there, and assess if there truly is a threat that you need to respond to. The more you ask yourself these questions in response to your anxiety, the more natural this will feel and you will slowly begin to gain mastery over your anxiety.

  1. On a scale of 1-10, how strong is my anxiety? (1 is no anxiety at all and 10 is the worst panic attack I have ever felt.

  2. What could have potentially triggered my anxiety? What was going on in my environment?

  3. What physical or emotional need of mine is currently unmet?

  4. Do I have the resources to meet this need in a healthy way?

  5. What am I doing to try to avoid my anxiety?

  6. What do I fear will happen if I allow myself to feel my anxiety?

  7. What does my value/belief system say about why I am feeling anxiety?

  8. What story am I telling myself about this anxiety?

  9. How can I communicate my anxiety to others in way that will elicit support?

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