This Is What It Means To Break Free From Anxiety

by | May 24, 2020 | Anxiety, Break Free From Relationship Anxiety, Relationships | 34 comments

We live in a culture that seeks to eradicate symptoms. Instead of viewing anxiety and its cohort of cousins, including intrusive thoughts, insomnia, obsessions, and compulsions, as evidence of an internal system that is working in order, our culture sees it as evidence of disorder and cause for elimination. Because anxiety ranges from uncomfortable to unbearable, it’s understandable that we would seek to eradicate it as quickly as possible. But as we’re learning in all realms – from psychology to physical health – when you numb the symptom without addressing the root cause, the underlying issue comes back in another form.

Because I hail from the depth psychological tradition of Carl Jung that recognizes that our symptoms are emissaries from the wise unconscious pointing us in the direction of growth and healing, I’ve never viewed anxiety or intrusive thoughts as evidence of disorder, nor do I seek to eradicate them. On the contrary, I see anxiety is a friend in disguise, for when we listen to its wisdom we are guided into the labyrinthian realms of our deepest fears, our unshed grief and unfinished transitions, and our shame that are ready to heal. Encased inside the anxiety is our roadmap for healing.

Given that I view anxiety as a gift and an embodiment of wisdom, why would I talk about breaking free from anxiety? In other words, why “break free” from something that’s healthy and designed to help us heal?

When I say “breaking free from anxiety” what I mean is that we learn how to stop taking our thoughts at face value and acting on all of our feelings.

We learn to recognize that anxiety is a messenger and a symptom and that in order to reap its wisdom we need to slow down enough to listen.

We learn to create a pause point between the symptoms – the intrusive thoughts or images, the somatic sensations – so that you have a choice regarding how to respond.

The work of healing is not about eliminating anxiety; that’s not possible. The trajectory is to learn how to respond differently to your anxiety each time it arises. 

When I say ‘breaking free from anxiety” I don’t mean that anxiety will never return.

That’s like saying that you’ll never have a dehydration headache again just because you learn about the importance of drinking enough water. Just like the headache is the symptom alerting you to a physical need, so anxiety is a symptom – a distress flare – alerting you to places inside that need attention.

And here’s the beautiful paradox of inner work: While our intention is not to eradicate the symptoms, when we listen to them and approach them with curiosity and compassion, we begin to heal at the root, which ultimately reduces the symptoms. The more we fill the well of Self, the less our wise inner systems need to toss up distress flares of symptoms.

Even so, as far as I understand it, intrusive thoughts and projections are not likely to disappear completely. They may change hooks, traveling from relationship anxiety to health anxiety to parenting anxiety to career anxiety as each of these areas carries its own metaphors and portals into parts of ourselves that need attention, but to expect anxiety to disappear is unrealistic and will only lead to frustration when you notice a new hook or the old one rearing its head once again.

The intrusive thoughts come. The anxiety arrives. The body waves its flag of distress in the form of insomnia and sometimes illness. These symptoms of anxiety don’t change. But what changes – and I cannot emphasize this enough – is our response to the anxiety. This is where we hold all of the power.

When it comes to relationship anxiety, which is how many people find their way to my work, breaking free from anxiety means that you hear the projection but you don’t believe that it’s true. You recognize the voice inside that says, “I’m not attracted to my partner right now” or “Something is wrong” or “My partner said something so stupid at dinner just now”, and instead of running with the fear-based baton that wants to interpret these statements as evidence that you’re with the wrong person, when you’ve broken free from the stranglehold of anxiety you have enough of an internal witness to say, “These are my intrusive thoughts/projections. They feel true and sound convincing, but I know they’re not. When I have some time, I will journal with the underlying fears, grief, and beliefs that are encased inside the projections.”

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The concepts and tools are simple, but

breaking free from the magnetic allure of believing that the projections are true is the hardest work in the world.

Why is it so hard? Because projections are a brilliant defense mechanism designed to protect you from the risk of loving, the risk of being vulnerable, the risk of letting yourself be known. Once you soften the projections, you’re left with the core fears and root causes of your relationship anxiety, which are your fear of loss, unshed grief, and your fear that you’ve not worthy of love and belonging. These core fears and pain etch so deeply into the most tender layers of our hearts that to look at them directly is almost like looking at the sun; we cannot do it without protection and support.

Every week in my small group calls on relationship anxiety we touch down into the vulnerable territory of these root causes: the fear of loss, the grief, and the core shame belief that you’re not worthy. In the loving container of the group, the members feel safe enough to travel into these regions and share at a depth that they rarely share in groups (if ever). It’s through these groups that I’ve seen firsthand the power of healing in community, especially when you’re all struggling with the same issue.

It’s for this reason that I’ve decided to run a live version of my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. Since 2010, thousands of people have taken this course and found their clarity and their freedom, and I’m excited to guide you personally and actively through each of the fourteen lessons via weekly emails while also offering an opportunity to connect with me directly on the group calls. We can heal alone, but we heal so much more effectively in a group with a guide, as it’s through these avenues that we know that we’re not alone and we can receive weekly encouragement to sift through the outer material and inner work in a measured, doable way.

Together, we can heal. Together, we can soften fear and grow love. Together, we can grow the loving inner parent that can meet the thoughts with discernment and attend to the underlying feelings with compassion. This is at the heart of my work, and this is what you will learn in the course.

To learn more, read testimonials, and sign up, click here. The live version will start on June 7th, 2020, and I very much look forward to meeting you there.

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34 Comments

  1. Hi Sheryl. Just wondering how you view depression? I worry a lot but i actually feel depressed more often than anxious. What would you say is the relationship between the two? Maybe a topic for another post. 🙂

    Reply
    • There is wisdom in depression just as there is in anxiety. I recommend reading Johann Hari’s work.

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      • Wow I just checked out his youtube videos. This was so helpful. Will try and read his book too. Thanks for that!

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  2. Hey Sheryl!
    I thought I’d take this post as an opportunity to thank you for your incredible work! I have struggled not feeling attracted to my significant other and even sometimes wondered if we have enough fun or connection. But since reading your work and participating in the lessons you teach I have found that the man I am with past beauty and past the excitement is on the inside the most incredible human being I know and it brings me so much joy to know that at the core of it all the reason I love him is for his heart and soul. Without you I don’t think this alteration of my perception of my relationship could be healed and I appreciate it more than words can ever describe.

    Reply
    • That’s so beautiful to hear, Emily. Thank you so much for taking the time to express your gratitude :).

      Reply
  3. I had a profound moment of connecting with the Jungian psychology around myth this morning. I was listening to the soundtrack for the musical Hadestown, which is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone set to New Orleans Jazz music. It’s sung through and apparently the staging is very minimalist so a lot of it can be experienced by just listening to the album. Since we won’t be able to see it in a theater any time soon, I made a plan to listen through the show for the first time while walking in nature. I set my alarm for 4:30 this morning and took myself on a hike at dawn. The hike was amazing, I was the third car in the parking lot and by the time I left there were people circling for spots, so I felt really proud of my inner parent for coaching myself through the resistance that came up around this whole plan (what if I need to pee, maybe I should just walk in my neighborhood, it’s not going to be open, etc)
    Listening to the story I was so deeply struck by the archetypes in the mythology and how it relates to relationship anxiety. I’m no where near the writer you are Sheryl but I can feel the themes of Eurydice as the inner feminine getting pulled into the underworld and the need to travel the hard road to the scary depth to reunite with it, but then as we travel back to the surface, doubt comes creeping back in and the act of turning to seek reassurance is the thing that makes us lose it all over again. So I’m hiking and listening to this music and just weeping and grieving all those times I wasn’t able to be there for myself, but feeling so held by the trees and the earth and the rising sun and my moving body. It’s a really beautiful and powerful show on so many levels, I could geek out about it for hours, so I wanted to share at least that part and invite you all to experience it as well 🙂

    Reply
    • This is incredible to read, Scoby, and you inspired me to look up Hadestown and buy the soundtrack! My boys and I love listening to musical soundtracks, and we’re excited to dive into this one.

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      • I’m so excited for all of you! If you’re a musical theater family, have you watched the show “Crazy Ex Girlfriend”? I was originally turned off by the title but it’s actually a really clever deconstruction of the trope and also it’s a musical! The songs are some of my favorite things to listen to (really funny and clever lyrics, spot in style parodies of everything from pop to show tunes) and some of the songs on relationships like a disco style song called “We’ll Never Have Problems Again” are just so on the nose. The first half of season one I practically was watching through my fingers because it was such uncomfortable recognition and empathetic cringe inducing, but she learns and grows as a character in ways that you don’t often see on television over the course of the series.

        Steven Universe is the other show that is sometimes a musical that I highly recommend, it’s the first Cartoon Network series created by a woman and it starts off with very subtle world building but goes into some really amazing vulnerable and heartwarming territory and brings me so much joy.

        Reply
        • Just want to say that I think Crazy Ex Girlfriend is one of the most brilliant TV shows ever made! I watched it during my journey with RA and it felt like it was written for me. Rachel Bloom is a hero of mine.

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          • Yes! She is such a smart and talented person! I love listening to interviews with her, there are so many stories she tells like about being a musical theater geek and looping thoughts OCD and I’m like Yup! That was me!

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  4. For the most part I am quite good at recognizing the projections and the fears they seek to protect me from – I have a whole heap more work to do, but I am certainly more capable of this than I was when I started counselling and was called on my journey inward. What I really struggle with is when my partner has a bad day or when he’s stressed. Lockdown is tough, and his usual coping mechanisms – bouldering, long hikes, swimmimg – are out of bounds because of the coronavirus. We have been cycling and he volunteers for a local charity now, but I can see his struggle some days and he’s bitterly disappointed that he cannot do the things that fill his inner well. This disappointment naturally mainfests as stress and ‘snappiness’ – I know why it’s happening, he knows why it’s happening and he conciously tries his best not to be snappy with me when stress arises, and quickly apologizes if he does.
    But it is at these times that Ego really pops up – the thoughts are one thing, but look at how snappy and stressed he gets! It’s that search for perfection, I know (and I’ve never liked confrontation anyway!) but this is now what knocks me off kilter, and in the midst of the boiling pot that is coronavirus lockdown, it’s even more potent than before. I journal, I practice Yoga and I listen to what my body needs regularly, and I hold on to the faith that this gradually shall pass. But man, some days you really feel done in because, like you said above, it’s the hardest work in the world! But I won’t give up.

    Reply
    • Quarantine really brings out so many stresses. I read an article that many, many relationships have increased conflict right now because of what you described. Not many outlets for stress, no one but your partner to fill emotional needs, differences are magnified. We’ll all get through it. My partner has also snapped at me and apologized afterward. I think we all just need to be patient with each other because it’s just hard. Let yourself feel what you feel but don’t give up ?

      Reply
      • You absolute gem. Thanks for taking the time to reply. So many things in the ether that are compounding existing anxieties at the moment. But we’ll all get through it. x

        Reply
  5. Is the sale only for the breaking free from relationship anxiety course or does it also apply to your other courses (I’m really interested in your trust yourself course, as I’ve already bought BFFRA)?

    Reply
    • This sale is only for the relationship anxiety course.

      Reply
  6. Hi Sheryl,
    I wanted to thank you for your help. My partner was very ill for a few weeks and I was scared they would die and within weeks I was feeling anxious around them the whole time thinking I didn’t want to be with them but reading your book and doing some inner work has helped me to see I was trying to protect myself from that potential loss and agony by pushing them away. Although I am still having some anxiety I have some relief from that side of things. Thank you

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s the core of the inner work: contacting the fear of loss that lives encased inside the anxious thoughts.

      Reply
  7. Hi Sheryl,

    My fiancé and I have been having a rough couple of months. Since the COVID 19 outbreak, he says he felt a sense of relief and that we could put off getting married. At first, he described it (like your blog) that he has “always had doubts” although he has overcome them throughout the relationship and even proposed all on his own last year. Right now, he has decided to try again but still feels uneasy and unsure.

    I think it sounds like relationship anxiety but he says he doesn’t think it has anything to do with fear or worry. Just a “feeling that it doesn’t work”. do you have any advice on how to broach the topic with him and which course would be suitable?

    Reply
    • The Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course would be ideal for him, but he would have to be on board with the idea that he may be suffering from relationship anxiety. I suggest sending him a couple of my blogs first to see if any of the concepts speak to him.

      Reply
  8. Can I ask what it is about dancing that is healing? Because I agree but do not understand why.

    I started taking zumba classes a few years ago and so many time I had to hold back tears during the class. For me, I had repressed my feelings about painful (very painful; to me) life events for decades and after much work with my therapist and deeply processing these events; going to my zumba classes sometimes overwhelmed me because for me there dancing with strangers (I am an introvert who prefers not to so these things!) was a symbol of freedom and required me to being vulnerable.

    Reply
    • AV, I would guess that it’s because of movement. Moving your body in any way releases stuck energy and actually increases serotonin levels in the brain. Dancing in particular requires letting go, especially of those inner judgment voices (at least for me). I’m terrified of dancing around people but really enjoy it on my own ;).

      Reply
    • I joke that I see God when I do Zumba! And, there have been times when I’ve been brought to my knees with grief when I’m dancing. I let the tears come. I figure if my Zumba class can stand watching me dance, they can endure a few tears. 😉

      Reply
  9. Hi Sheryl, does one need to be on social media to join the live version of the course?

    Reply
  10. Sheryl, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you. I have been in a loving relationship with an incredible man for two years, but right from the start I suffered from intense anxiety about the relationship. In the past month or more, however, I have been largely free from intrusive thoughts. Yes, they surface from time to time, but never to the unbearable degree of true anxiety.

    I credit this progress largely to your work. These resources taught me that anxiety is not something to run from or try to logically argue myself out of, but rather it comes from fear. I began accepting my anxiety, reminding myself that I was afraid (and that that was okay), and allowing the fear to remain. Most of the time, I found that within moments the anxiety would disappear and I could move forward.

    Now, through God’s grace, I have gone weeks without suffering from crippling relationship anxiety. Yes, there is sometimes a rogue intrusive thought, but it scarcely bothers me and I’m able to put it aside without being bothered by it. Sometimes it strikes me how far I’ve come, and I sit for a moment in the joy of knowing that I am no longer afraid.

    So I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for the enormous part your blog played in this transformation, Sheryl, and to put my story forward to encourage other readers that it is POSSIBLE to break free from relationship anxiety. Perhaps your stories won’t look quite like mine, dear friends, but with hope and perseverance there is a way through your pain. God bless you all! <3

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for expressing your gratitude, and I’m so glad that my work has been helpful for you. Many blessings to you!

      Reply
  11. Hi Sheryl,

    I read your e mail this morning and decided to dance to some music ! You are right, it shifted alot of energy. I even cried after and then felt so much better xx

    Reply
  12. Hello!
    I’ve been dealing with feelings of repulsion and almost like I can’t even let my partner touch me and it scares me a lot that it’s a sign something is wrong even though he’s the most wonderful man! I’m not sure if this is a manifestation of fear or something else. And sometimes I even have thoughts that he is too irritating or too this or not enough that that I worry I should just leave because of he’s lacking in so many things how can I possibly be happy….he’s incredible and I want a future with him but don’t understand what is happening to me….

    Reply
    • It’s classic relationship anxiety, Leah. I have many posts on irritation and repulsion, which you can find through the search bar feature.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much! Do you have anything in feeling stuck or even bored…is that normal sometimes?

        Reply
  13. Hi Sheryl!
    Thank you for sharing this blog, it has inspired my question…
    I’ve been contemplating anxiety medication (I’m 40 and have never taken it before) but I’m very anxious about taking meds. Does your work go hand in hand with medication or do you believe things will pass natural when the work is done properly? Feeling very desperate for relief.

    Reply
    • Medication is a very personal decision. Sometimes the anxiety passes naturally with the deeper work and other times medication is essential to be able to regulate enough to do the deeper work.

      Reply
  14. Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you for this post and for all your important work. I wonder if anyone can help. I have been struggling so much lately, but today I decided to write out a list of ‘things I’m afraid of’. I’m not sure what I do with it now. Do I bring it to Therapy? To my partner? Journal on it? How do I confront these fears so they can stop getting in the way of my loving relationship?

    Reply

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