How Anxiety Functions to Suppress Other Emotions
Have you ever felt like your anxiety is controlling you instead of the other way around? Anxiety is a common feeling and one that can be very frustrating because it can feel like no matter what you do, you just can’t seem to get rid of it. Sometimes it seems like as soon as you deal with one issue, another one quickly pops up and starts your next anxiety spiral. As a therapist, I’ve worked with people who can’t even recall a time they didn’t feel at least somewhat anxious.
Though you might feel like you can’t stop anxiety from controlling you, that doesn’t have to be true.. Once you understand how anxiety works, it will lessen its hold on you. You can learn to take back control—not just manage it.
Let’s start with the basics: how does anxiety function to suppress other emotions?
What is emotional numbing?
One of the most common effects of anxiety is emotional numbing. When we experience anxiety, our brain goes into “fight or flight” mode. This means that our body kicks into survival mode and starts producing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones allow us to deal with whatever is causing our anxiety by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. When we are faced with a real immediate threat, more nuanced emotions need to take a back seat. But when this numbing continues in day-to-day life, it can become so habitual it feels more “true” than your actual feelings. People who suffer from anxiety often report feeling emotionally numb or flat. Stress hormones suppress our ability to feel other emotions, including the positive ones like joy or curiosity. That’s why Anxiety ends up getting all of our attention.
While emotional numbing can be a short-term coping mechanism, it’s not a healthy long-term solution. In fact, research has shown that people who experience chronic emotional numbing are at an increased risk for developing depression which makes sense when you consider that depression isn’t about feeling deep sad or grief, but feeling nothing at all.
Breaking free from the hold of anxiety and emotional numbing
Fortunately, there are ways to break out of the cycle of anxiety and emotional numbing. One of the first steps is to identify which emotions you are most uncomfortable with. If you’re like many people you probably find yourself disliking a lot of the same emotions in other people that you experience yourself. This isn’t always easy to face, but it can be helpful in identifying the emotions that are causing you the most trouble.
Some of the most common emotions that people typically find difficult to deal with are anger, sadness, and fear. These are the emotions that you may tend to avoid or suppress the most.
Once you know what emotions are difficult for you to experience, you can start to work on noticing them, accepting, and processing them as they arise. By gradually noticing and processing to the emotions that you’ve been avoiding, you can start to feel them, instead of allowing anxiety to be the loudest voice in the room.
So how do you do this? One way is to reflect on situations that make you anxious and then dig a little deeper to understand the emotion behind it. Therapy is a great place to do this. Once you know what these feelings are, you can start to experience them head-on. This may require some courage and risk-taking on your part, but by doing so, you will begin to break down the barriers that anxiety has built up around these emotions, and you’ll learn that you can cope with them.
What’s possible when you can feel your feelings
While emotion and anxiety typically work on unconscious levels throughout our day, sometimes in micro-moments and decisions, the good news is that you can gradually become more and more aware of this process. You can start to take back control of your anxiety by accepting and processing the emotions that cause you the most trouble. It isn’t always easy or straightforward, but it is possible. And I promise that it is worth it. While emotions can be very uncomfortable, experiencing authentic emotion opens doors to who you are and what you want, while chronic low level anxiety typically keeps you stuck in overwhelm and burn-out.
Anxiety is a complex experience that can have a profound impact on our lives. However, there is hope; with therapy, reflection, and accountability it is possible to learn how to cope with your anxiety in a healthy way and begin to feel emotions again, not just the constant drone of anxiety.