Written by Thanos Nioplias
Every time a friend or a client shares that an anxiety attack got in the way of work, school, or a social activity, I can’t help but think of the story of a kid who is being bullied.
Imagine you’re a 5th grade kid in middle school. You love playing soccer, basketball, and tag with your classmates. That is, until someone in the schoolyard starts picking on you. This bully, for no good reason, begins to call you names. Understandably, you become withdrawn, sometimes even hiding in the classroom during recess while the other carefree kids continue to play outside. You feel trapped, not only because of the embarrassment of being called names, but also because you are now avoiding your friends. Your attempts to confront the bully and ask him to stop don’t work; they only infuriate him further. So you run back to the classroom, defeated.
One day, you realize that this is not how you want to spend your middle school years. You want to have fun with your friends and make school memories to look back on and smile when you are older. Somehow, you muster up the courage to walk outside. The bully spots you right away and rushes over to call you names. Even though it is so painful, you pretend you don’t hear him and carry on. You approach your friends and shoot basketballs and run around as if he isn’t there. The bully comes over and is now shouting and teasing louder than ever before! But you continue to ignore him until his voice, however distracting, becomes irrelevant. Eventually, the bully gets tired and decides to pick on someone else. When he realized he couldn’t terrorize you, he walked away, defeated.
As simplistic as this scenario may be, it accurately underscores how to handle negative emotions. When anxiety kicks in and makes it challenging to live life, any attempts to fight or control it directly will fail. The only effective approach is to simply acknowledge our anxiety – to let it “play” in the background – and ignore it, while we focus on what we were doing before the anxiety began.
Participating in any activity when feeling anxious will undoubtedly be less enjoyable (at first) than it could have been if you were feeling calm. Nevertheless, next time you experience anxiety say to yourself: “My anxiety is just a bully. It can’t truly stop me from what I’m doing!” and just show up and be as present as you can, until it goes away. Just like a bully’s loud voice, you can acknowledge anxiety playing in the background and choose to keep your eyes on the ball. When anxiety does not achieve its goal to keep you preoccupied, like any other bully, it will go away, defeated.