One of the first questions I ask a new client who’s struggling with relationship anxiety is, “Did you have anxiety as a child?” It’s no longer surprising to me when the client says no because I can almost guarantee that she’ll answer affirmatively to my next question, “Did you worry a lot as a child?”
For some reason we don’t correlate anxiety with worry. Perhaps it’s because there’s still some stigma attached to the word anxiety, so culturally we latch onto worry as a more palatable term. Yet it’s essential to understand that worry is the mental manifestation of anxiety. Experiencing nameless dread or identifiable dread as well as being called “too sensitive” or “overly sensitive” as a child are other indicators that anxiety was likely present.
I ask this question because it’s important to understand that if you’re struggling with relationship anxiety it’s easy to blame your relationship as the source if the problem, but when you can draw a line through your life and connect the dots at the junctures when you experienced anxiety it can help you remove the projection from your partner and begin to take ownership for the anxiety that has lived inside of you for a long time and is now presenting itself as an opportunity for healing.
So let’s take a look at worry starting from the beginning.
If you worried as a child it’s highly likely that at least one of your parents was a worrier. Anxiety is hereditary, so if you were exposed to worry growing up, even if it wasn’t verbalized, you likely absorbed it. Take a moment to think about who in your family is a worrier. My clients often know without a moment’s hesitation which of their parents, if not both, handed down the tendency toward anxiety.
I understand this inherited trait quite well as I come from a long line of worriers. I’ve inherited many wonderful qualities from the strong women from whom I’m descended, but I’ve also inherited a propensity toward worry. I’ve heard stories about my overbearing great-grandmother (after whom I was named) who would exert her control over her three daughters, and later, my mother. I can recall with specific detail the look in my grandmother’s eyes and the pursed line of her lips when she was worrying about something, and I know that she suffered from panic attacks throughout her life. And my mother, who has worked her tail off to transform her worry into faith and serenity, spent much of my early years worrying about her kids. She’s shared with me that when my brothers and I were young, every time she left the house she would get a mental picture of the house going up in flames. So I know that, while there was also tremendous love and safety, I was gestated in a pool of worry and grew up with that nagging, unnamable fear nipping at my heels until it erupted in my early twenties in the form of a panic attack.
Many of my clients and e-course members who suffered through engagement anxiety are now pregnant, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single one of them has shared with me that they’re worried about the health of their baby and/or their ability to be a good mother. An element of this worry is normal, natural, and unavoidable, for as I talk about many times in my Birthing a New Mother e-course, worry is the work of the motherhood. When you love someone, you worry; that’s just the way it goes. Every first time a mother worries about the health of her baby and her ability to love her child and every second time mother worries if she’ll have enough love for another. All normal. But when the worry escalates to the point of despair and panic, an intervention is needed.
I’d like to diverge here for a moment as there’s a message in the New Age world that says that if you’re worrying or sad or scared during your pregnancy, you’re going to negatively affect your growing baby. I believe this is hogwash and only amplifies a woman’s anxiety because now not only is she worrying about whatever she was originally worried about but she’s also worried about how her worry is going to affect her baby! What a mindf**ck! And I’ll share this anecdotal story just to put any of you pregnant women reading this at ease: I have a dear friend who found out she was pregnant just a few weeks after her best friend died. Then, about a month later, she received the news that her husband’s brother and his wife were killed in a tragic accident, leaving four children behind. And then a month later one of her closest friends was killed in a car accident, leaving behind her husband and young son. All during her pregnancy, while she was grieving deeply, she worried about how her unstable inner state would affect her baby. She was certain that he would be a fussy, difficult, unsettled child. Well, he was born two months ago and he’s truly the most mellow, happy, smiley baby I’ve ever met.
So how do we effectively work with worry? Worry is the opposite of faith. It’s a blockade that protects you from the powerlessness and vulnerability of being human. When you’re spinning on the habitual hamster wheel of worry, it’s your wounded self/ego trying to protect you from the softness of your heart by trying to control an unpredictable outcome. Many people don’t realize that worry is a form if control, that the small, fear-based self holds tenaciously and unconsciously to the false belief that if you perseverate enough about a certain topic you can ensure the desired outcome. Conversely, the ego believes that if it lets go of the reins and stops thinking about it then the worst possible scenario will occur. In other words, the ego believes that its state of high-alert hypervigilance circumvents negative outcomes.
When the ego lets go and you make a choice to stop worrying and instead hand over the reins to Life (since that’s where they are anyway), you will probably feel like you’re free falling. That’s when it’s essential to replace the negative habit of worry with a positive faith and prayer practice. For it’s only when you let go of worry can you align yourself with the flow of life and open the space for something wiser and kinder to enter.
Here’s my three step approach for replacing the negative habit of worry with faith and serenity:
1. Acknowledge the worry
Notice where it manifests in your body and place your hands on that part of you. Imagine the two most loving hands in the world covering your hands as you bring a moment of compassion to your fearful place. Also remind yourself that worry is not a character default but a consequence of your profound caring and love gone awry. Had you learned to channel your care toward faith early in life you wouldn’t have developed the worry habit. Bring compassion to your worry, reminding yourself that it’s a morphed manifestation love.
2. Gather it up
Together with the imaginary hands resting in your hands, see yourself gathering up the worry like a cloud and tossing it into the air. If you’re in a place where you can literally throw your hands and arms into the sky, even better.
3. Release it
Say a prayer or words of release. The prayer that I like is, “Please help open to whatever is in my highest good.” I may also pray for a desired outcome like, “Please keep my kids safe while they’re playing on the icy creek,” but I recognize that my prayer doesn’t necessarily effect the outcome any more than worry does. Still, when we align ourselves with faith and spirit instead of fear and control we’re raising our frequency and creating a healthier internal environment where serenity can breathe.
So next time you’re feeling worried, give it a try. It can’t hurt. If you do this enough times, eventually you will create a new habit and will start to anchor yourself in a practice of surrender. And if you have a child struggling with anxiety, you can easily teach the above steps to him or her. I’ll be talking more about this over the next couple of weeks as I share some stories about our son and our cat.