Megan Begley, LCSW
Anxiety Doesn't Want to be Managed
Updated: Jul 2, 2022
‘’I’ve learned so many coping skills, but nothing really helps.’’
I used to hear this over and over from clients, and it was a primary reason I was motivated to seek training in therapies based on a somatic (mind-body) approach to healing trauma.
Anxiety can be limited to our heads in the form of worry or negative rumination, but often it becomes a physical experience, from tension or restlessness to full-blown panic attacks.
There are indeed effective coping skills, such as slow, controlled breathing methods. Breathing with longer exhalations than inhalations is one way to activate the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system response. This is also why practice of yoga postures is such a helpful approach: although the mainstream interpretation is about achieving flexibility or strength, it's really about calming the nervous system by linking the breath to movement. In fact, yoga postures were traditionally used to prepare the mind for meditation, which sheds light on why so many of us struggle to use meditation effectively.
Yet, even when coping skills are learned and practiced, there can be resistance to using them, even (or especially) when anxiety is at its worst. It may feel like paralysis, or more like a begrudging or victimized feeling that refuses to try. Why is that?
There may or may not be a scientific answer, but personal and professional experience has led me to this recognition: anxiety doesn’t really want to be managed or coped with, and it’s not a ‘’problem'' as much as an important notification from the body-mind to bring something deeper to the surface. Psychologist and author Dr. Joan Rosenberg proposes a similar idea, stating ’"Anxiety is usually an unexpressed emotion.’’ She explains how, for example, someone may develop anxiety after they’ve repressed anger rather than constructively sharing their truth.
Although it may also benefit from attention to biological factors, anxiety is a message that something inadequately acknowledged needs to be seen, heard, and usually witnessed as well. Consider, for example, that some cultures still have elaborate community rituals for publicly sharing the grief and losses of others. This suggests that when emotional pain is not only expressed, but done so in a setting of safety and acceptance, it can be integrated in a way that prevents later development of mental health disorders.
Meanwhile, brief, stoic funerals are as openly supportive as America routinely gets. Our culture generally isn't oriented toward deep emotional expression, and most people are raised in homes where even the best parents respond inadequately to the magnitude of a child’s internal experience.
This is why I encourage people to consider mind-body/somatic therapy approaches even if they lack significant trauma history or an obvious source of anxiety: the body keeps the score when it comes to all of our unresolved emotions, and attention to body sensations is a bridge into greater awareness of them. If you’ve reached the point where your anxiety symptoms are difficult or impossible to manage, it’s likely a signal that deeper feelings are trying desperately to get your attention.
As a somatically-oriented therapist, my goal is to help you uncover those feelings and also serve as your compassionate witness, providing a safe space to recognize, process, and release them for anxiety resolution. Read about how EMDR and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT Tapping) each use somatic awareness as a bridge into the subconscious roots of a problem.