Anxiety Is a Superpower
Without It, We Stay Stuck
Madness need not be all breakdown.
It may also be break-through.
-R. D. Laing
When your car's check-engine light flashes, you immediately know it's time to look under the hood. The light itself isn't the problem-it's a signal pointing you toward a problem. Trying to "get rid of" anxiety is as counterproductive as trying to disable the check-engine light on your car. In some cases, anxiety is an illness that must be medically managed before anything else can be accomplished. If you're reading this book, however, it's possible that your anxiety is an indicator light. Though terrifying, uncomfortable, and confusing, anxiety is actually a superpower that can alter time, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and laser its way through concrete. Most of us learned to view anxiety as an adversary. This chapter will teach you how to view anxiety in a wildly new way.
Why should you believe any of this information when pop psychology headlines tell a different story?
By the time research makes it through the maze of the publishing process, it is already about a decade behind. This is why you'll rarely hear the most current information in mainstream media. Thought leaders such as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score), Dr. Stephen Porges (The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory), Dr. Peter Levine (Waking the Tiger), and Dr. Pat Ogden (Trauma and the Body) have mountains of data showing that mental health requires body awareness. Anxiety is one of the physical cues that allow us to know when we are out of alignment with external safety and/or internal truth. Heavy psychotropic medications and labels of mental illness should be the outliers, not the norm.
Psychiatrist and trauma authority Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes: "The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort . . . in an attempt to control these processes, [people] often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves."
Since anxiety is a signal, you'll stay stuck without it. I know it feels super-unpleasant, overwhelming, and sometimes even paralyzing to be flooded with anxiety. And yet anxiety is 100 percent necessary to solve the problem of stuck. Anxiety is not an emotion-it's a series of body sensations. Anxiety does not attack you-it's trying to help you. You are not crazy or broken if you struggle to manage anxiety.
Wait . . . what?
"But I hate my anxiety!"
"I feel anxious all the time!"
"But my anxiety keeps me from doing things!"
"But my anxiety attacks me!"
"But my anxiety . . ."
Most people stare at me like I'm a conspiracy theorist when I explain that anxiety is one of the most important ingredients to getting out of stuck mode. It is clear from the epidemic of panicked, addicted, anxious, overwhelmed, and physically ill people that something is amiss when it comes to our understanding of anxiety. Anxiety doesn't keep you stuck. Anxiety is a map that leads you out of stuck.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, "anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States . . . or 18.1% of the population every year."
Do 40 million people need to endure a life of incurable mental illness, or is it possible that something else is going on? As a licensed specialist clinical social worker, I am authorized to diagnose you with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar, and Borderline Personality Disorder by checking your symptoms off a list from the fifth edition of a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). The DSM-V is the bible for mental health professionals. But what most people don't know is the DSM is influenced by politicians, it's diagnostically incomplete, and it doesn't take trauma or environmental factors into consideration. My psychopathology professor once told our class, "The DSM should stand for door-stop manual, since the only thing it's good for is holding the door open."
What If the Problem Isn't Inside You?
Nowhere in my psychiatric hospital internship was I taught to ask about oppression, patriarchy, or systemic racism as a contributing factor to anxiety. Nowhere in the towering pile of books and assignments was I required to learn about the nervous system, including how the body responds to stress. Nowhere in my first job as a children's therapist did any of the doctors or therapists look at anxiety as anything other than a medical disease. It is a little-known fact that therapists can become licensed and fully operational without ever learning about the body. I had to do many years of optional training (as well as a considerable amount of personal therapy) in order to gather and synthesize the information found in these pages.
Anxiety is not fun. It can sometimes feel life-threatening and disorienting. It makes sense that you've looked outside yourself for answers. But the bright shiny lights outside you won't illuminate your understanding. The answers to your questions are found inside the dark woods of your own mind. When you try to numb out or avoid anxiety through eating, watching YouTube, comparing yourself to perfect-looking Facebook posts, drinking, or obsessing about relationships, you miss out on powerful signals from your inner world that point you toward your most authentic self. If you learn to listen to its call, anxiety is the shadowy and mysterious guide that can lead you into, through, and safely out of the forest of your chaos. This is a journey many are unwilling to take and others are unable to survive. As M. Scott Peck, who wrote The Road Less Traveled, put it, "Mental health is a commitment to reality at all costs."
Copyright © 2022 by Britt Frank. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.