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Lisa Rankin On When Is anxiety “normal?” How Much anxiety is “Normal?”

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A European magazine interviewed me about The Fear Cure, and I thought it might serve some of you if I share my answers.

1. When is anxiety “normal?” How much anxiety is “normal?”

Anxiety is never normal. Fear can be healthy when it’s the kind of fear I call “true fear,” the kind that can save your life, but anxiety never is. For example, if you’re standing too close to the edge of a cliff and you feel afraid, this can be a healthy fear that motivates you to step away from the edge as a form of protection. Children who are born with a disorder that eliminates all fear don’t live very long. True fear keeps the physical body safe from harm. But anxiety is not true fear, so it’s never “normal” or healthy. Anxiety falls into the category I call “false fear.” False fear, or anxiety, is never healthy, although it seems to be part of the human condition as a function of a mind on overdrive. The mind makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master. When we listen to the mind’s ramblings about all the things that could go wrong in our lives, we suffer unnecessarily from the physiological and psychological effects of anxiety. Anxiety is simply the product of the mind’s power of imagination. The same imagination that allows us to write great fiction stories can also fictionalize our lives, making up horror stories about all the things that could go wrong with our finances, our relationships, our health, the safety of our children, or our planet. If we believe all the stories our minds makeup, it is impossible to find peace in our hearts. Anxiety is just fear of an imaginary future, something which may or may not come true. We can’t know the future. Even psychics admit that they’re only reading one potential timeline but that timelines change all the time. So fear of an imagined future is a painful waste of stress responses and energy, and yet, our culture makes us anxiety-prone. It’s an epidemic in Western culture, and it’s related to our need to feel in control. When we learn to let go, to surrender, to relinquish the need for certainty or control, to trust an invisible force of Love, anxiety begins to ease.

Many of us are afraid to let go of anxiety. We think we need it to motivate us to do the right thing. For example, we think if we’re not anxious about climate change, we might not make efforts to go green. But intuition serves that function much better than anxiety. Intuition helps us make wise choices and protects us much more effectively than false fear (anxiety) ever will.

2. Are certain people more often affected by anxiety?

Yes. Those who experience significant abuse or trauma in their childhoods are particularly at risk of anxiety, as are people who experience trauma as adults. For example, anxiety is much more common in return war veterans and people who have survived genocide or rape or even just the oppression of patriarchal systems.

3. Are there positive sides of anxiety?

Anxiety is a marker of all that needs to be healed within you, so you could say that anxiety is beneficial as a guidepost to healing. That’s why I say that the title “The Fear Cure” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not about curing fear. It’s about letting fear cure YOU. Every time you’re anxious, pay attention. This anxiety is signaling, “Something needs to be healed here. Please pay attention. You’re not trusting this invisible force of Love that helps us grow as souls and you’re not deeply listening to your intuition. Instead, you’re thinking that you need to control life and life is uncontrollable. Make your peace here.”

It doesn’t help to demonize our anxiety. Instead, we can use it as a growth tool. For example, if you are anxious about money, this is a useful sign that you might have old patterns around money from your childhood that need to be healed. If you are extremely anxious that your partner will cheat on you, you probably have some wounding around betrayal and trust that needs to be healed. If we identify anxiety as “false fear,” we can use our awareness of the anxiety to dive deeper into inquiry with that which makes us anxious, and this awareness and curiosity can guide us to do the inner work that heals from the root cause of the anxiety. In this way, we might even be grateful for our anxiety, since it is showing us all the growth edges that are calling for our attention so we can be liberated from unnecessary suffering.

4. How can one adequately deal with anxiety?

I sincerely believe that anxiety cannot be healed without a spiritual approach. Unless we let go of believing we can control everything in life, we will always feel anxious when life gets out of control. But we cannot control the mystery that is life. Life is, by its very essence, a vast mystery. Even scientists admit that we only understand a small fraction of how the universe works, that it is essentially mysterious. When we fear the mystery, we will feel anxious. When we learn to trust the mystery, to surrender our need for control to a force of love (it doesn’t matter what you call it, but some might call it God), then the nervous system starts to relax. You begin to trust that Something Larger than your Small Self can handle orchestrating life better than you can, and your mind can relax and stop trying to micromanage everything. If you grab life by the handle and try to control it, you wind up anxious, but if you can let go, life becomes much more relaxed, fun, playful, joyful, and in flow. I don’t think we can soundbyte into some magic bullet the solution for anxiety, but if I had to answer the question, “What is The Fear Cure?” I’d say that it’s coming into right relationship with uncertainty. When we can stare into the face of uncertainty with curiosity, a sense of excitement about what lies ahead, and trust in a benevolent universe, then uncertainty becomes the gateway to possibilities, rather than a frightening discomfort that must be controlled.

Meditation can help. Prayer can help. Deep listening while out in nature can help. Conscious movement, like ecstatic dance, Qi Gong, yoga, hiking or running when it’s not goal oriented- these all help calm the nervous system and bolster trust in a benevolent universe. If you’re anxious, trust your intuition. Ask yourself, “What will help?” But then let go of thinking you can control it or fix it. Pray for help. Surrender the whole thing to Divine Will and ask for guidance. Trust that.

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