Anxiety is a signal that core emotions like anger and sadness need to be expressed.
Naming and accepting both sides of a conflict reduces anxiety.
Identifying the core emotions that underlie anxiety reduces anxiety.
Anxiety is miserable. And most people reach for a pill or push it away to stop it. But if we think of anxiety as a signal or as the tip of an iceberg, we can take steps to more permanently reduce the amount of anxiety we experience.
Anxiety tells us that deep biological programs called core emotions have been triggered out of conscious awareness. These core emotions are designed by evolution to be felt and expressed. When we push them down, we suffer anxiety.
Learning about core emotions and how they work in the mind and body is the most important thing we can do to get relief, and even heal anxiety at its root. Tools like the Change Triangle guide us to name our core emotions.
Conflicts also cause anxiety. But conflicts can be more effectively dealt with and anxiety reduced when we identify and work with each side of the conflict. What follows is an explanation of two techniques I teach both my psychotherapy clients and participants in the Emotions Education 101 group class on Zoom:
When it comes to dealing with conflicts, name both sides of the conflict and change the BUT to an AND.
This technique makes space for both sides instead of negating the side that comes before the BUT. This feels better in our bodies. It's important to embrace both sides and to address them each.
Here are a few examples:
I love you AND I hate you.
I feel sad AND happy.
I am depressed AND I know I am lucky in many ways.
I am lonely AND I prefer to be alone.
I believe I am horrible AND I believe I am superior.
I want to see my parents AND they always criticize me.
Name and validate when you have anxiety
Look for any underlying conflicts
Validate each side of the conflict with an "and" instead of a "but."
Notice how that feels.
When core emotions blend together, it creates anxiety. Notice each core emotion separately.
Anxiety is caused by being overwhelmed by emotions and/or having many different core emotions at the same time. The core emotions listed on the bottom of the Change Triangle map are anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement.
When core emotions collapse on each other, they create one big blob of anxiety. But when we can tease out and name each and every emotion in the mix, and imagine each one separated from the other with lots of air and space in between each one, we feel better. By slowing down with grounding and breathing, and identifying all the core emotions under our anxiety, we feel calmer and clearer about what’s going on for us. For maximum relief, we must eventually process each core emotion one at a time.
At the moment that anxiety arises, ask yourself:
Am I angry?
Am I sad?
Am I afraid?
Am I disgusted?
Am I excited?
Am I happy?
Am I sexually excited?
Name all of the underlying core emotions you notice inside your mind and body, imagining each emotion with lots of air and space in between each one.
Final Thoughts and Practice Exercise
Identifying underlying core emotions and conflicts not only alleviates inner tension, but it's also a step in working the Change Triangle. Once we name previously-avoided core emotions, we can move through them into the openhearted state of our authentic self and access those good-feeling Cs: calm, clarity, confidence, connection, courage, compassion, and curiosity. Next time you have some anxiety, apply these two techniques. With practice comes relief plus a sense of mastery over our emotional mind and body.
Want to try a gentle meditation to work with anxiety right now? In this video I walk you through an exercise I use frequently:
A+ for trying!
References: Abbass, A. (2015). Reaching Through Resistance: Advanced Psychotherapy Techniques. Kansas City: Seven Leaves Press Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working The Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House