There is one common theme that almost everyone who feels anxiety can relate to. In this video I explain how and why most anxiety is social in nature, and why that matters when it comes to feeling more at ease in anxious moments. If you deal with anxiety, this video is for you. Keep watching!
Hi folks, I’m Will Bratt from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives. We’re therapists who do regular videos on mental wellness, and give practical ideas and tips to make your life happier and more fulfilling – so hit the subscribe button to keep in the loop!
As a therapist, I have more conversations about anxiety than any other problem people experience. Because I’ve had so many of these conversations, I can’t help but ask, “What’s similar from person to person?”, “How are these experiences the same – even though they have their own unique differences?”
I had an “Aha!” moment one day when I realized that so many people’s experiences of anxiety often tie back to relationships and social connections.
Through helping people address their diverse experiences of anxiety, I’ve seen how realizing the specific social concerns at the heart of your anxiety can help you feel more empowered to take action in ways that make a big difference.
So let’s dive in to how that works.
Anxiety is typically described as the emotional response to anticipated negative events or experiences. It draws our attention to what could happen, in the interest of avoiding negative outcomes. In this way, even if we don’t think it’s helpful, anxiety is primarily concerned with our safety.
Now, we usually think of safety in terms of our physical wellbeing, but as relational creatures, our social wellbeing is also a valid need to consider. While we may not need the acceptance of others in order to survive physically, things like dignity, esteem, value, and worth, carry a lot of weight in the social world. If you’re skeptical, just ask anyone who has thought about ending their life after struggling against bullying, abuse, or social exclusion and rejection. Belonging matters and isolation can kill.
The importance of belonging is clear when we look at social anxiety. Most people who identify as having social anxiety describe it as fears and worries around rejection, exclusion, and humiliation – the other side of the coin from belonging and acceptance. But how does this common social denominator relate to other forms of anxiety? It’s really all about context and taking a deeper look at why we feel anxious about the things we do.
It can be useful to start with a question like “What particular fears or concerns does your anxiety relate to the most?” The more specific you can be, the easier it is to really understand what it’s about. I’ve also linked a to a post from the Heart & Oak blog that goes into more detail, and includes other questions that can help you clarify the target of your anxiety with even more depth and accuracy.
Let me share a few examples to illustrate what I mean:
I had a recent session with someone who was feeling anxious and unsafe in a big new city. On the surface, it might have looked like he was experiencing agoraphobia, fearing that others might do him harm. But when we really got to the heart of his anxiety, he was ultimately afraid that some outside force would do him or his partner harm, and disrupt or undermine their relationship, which he cherished deeply.
I had another client who described feeling anxious about his health, worrying that he might get really sick with something like cancer. It would have been short sighted for me to assume that his anxiety was all about his health and mortality, as the more we talked about it, the clearer it became that he was ultimately afraid of losing the chance to get to know his family on a deeper level, and cultivate more fulfilling relationships with them.
Just to share one more example, I worked with a young woman who was terribly anxious about a lot of things, including driving, her health, and unexpected catastrophes. As we put her anxiety in context, she made it nice and clear that she had been through a lot of loss in her short life, and she was understandably afraid of losing her closest, most supportive and stable relation, which was her partner.
All three of these examples illustrate how anxieties that could have easily been misunderstood as very individual concerns were really and truly relational.
So what does all this mean? How can it be helpful and empowering being able to find the relational concerns at the heart of your anxiety? It’s all about making the context around your anxiety more tangible, and therefore easier to work with in effective ways.
In all three of the examples I mentioned before, those people were able to directly address their relational concerns and issues behind their anxieties, and eventually feel way more at ease. Their anxieties went from being bad enough to require professional help, to way, way more manageable.
There are reasons behind everything, and anxiety is no exception to that. Recognizing the concerns that inform your own anxiety can give you something tangible to work with, which can ultimately help you feel more empowered and capable of managing your anxiety at its root.
Because anxiety is such a common human experience, it would be so helpful if you could leave a comment below about how you’ve addressed concerns that underlie your experiences of anxiety. Have you found success in reducing your anxiety by addressing troubling relationship situations? Whether you have, or if you have any questions about the social side of anxiety that the Heart & Oak community could help with, let us know in the comments below.
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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life!