Why Trying to Stay Positive Can Make Anxiety Worse
Today I’d like to share with you why we need sadness, and how being too positive can make anxiety worse. To illustrate this, let me use an event I’m sure you’ve experienced before.
Imagine that you're driving to an appointment, and you're late. Your anxiety is urging you to hurry as fast as you can (but not too fast, because anxiety also doesn't want you to get pulled over!). You see a green light in front of you, and you speed up a bit to make it through...but then it turns red right in front of you, forcing you to a sudden stop.
As you sit there in front of that light, impatiently waiting, you let out a sigh. That sigh is your soft sadness coming forward to help your anxiety to chill out a bit, knowing that there's nothing you can do but wait. Sadness is all about surrendering to the flow of life, so it shows up to help you accept the extra minute your trip will take, and to let go of your desire to make it through that light.
So now imagine what would happen if you weren't able to access sadness, if you had learned not to let yourself feel it? Your anxiety might amp up even more, stressing you out unnecessarily and perhaps causing you to drive even more recklessly.
Now imagine this playing out in other situations, day after day. Think of all the stress that would accumulate on your system if your sadness wasn't ever there to calm your anxiety down!
Anxiety is a form of fear, warning us of future dangers and wanting us to take action to prevent them.
For this reason, anxiety has an energizing and activating effect on the nervous system. Sadness, in contrast, is soothing and relaxing, because it’s all about letting go and accepting what is.
Sadness is meant to balance anxiety and fear: to regulate fear when it gets too intense to handle, to calm our anxiety when it goes on too long, and to let it all go when there simply isn't anything we can do about it.
Sadness seems like an easy emotion to feel (so why wouldn't we?), but many of us have developed a habit of suppressing our sadness.
Perhaps as a child we learned we had to stay upbeat, positive, and happy in order to feel loved and accepted. Perhaps our role in the family was the clown, who always cheered everyone else up - and that became our identity.
Or perhaps we've learned to rely on anxiety to give us drive and energy, so that we could be successful and high-achieving. If that's who we felt we needed to be in order to receive our parents' love and approval, it would make sense that we learned to deny our sadness, because we felt we couldn’t relax.
But sooner or later, we inevitably pay the price for this imbalance. Even when our anxiety helps us to be high-functioning, we can only sustain it for so long before it either gets out of control, or causes us to burn out (emotionally or physically).
Another reason why we might avoid sadness is if we’ve experienced deep loss in our lives and our grief feels too overwhelming, so we learned to hold the grief at bay with humor and positive thinking.
Grief is much more difficult to feel than the everyday emotion of sadness, so it's even more common for people to avoid and suppress it. Grief can feel like a looming tidal wave that would utterly drown us if we let it carry us out to sea.
But the thing about grief is that the longer we bottle it up and refuse to feel it, the bigger and more overwhelming it will feel. Grief doesn't simply just go away with time; it stays within us weighing on our hearts, until it is fully felt. This can be for the rest of our lives, if we're not careful!
So we can easily get into a feedback loop where we avoid grief because it feels too painful, which makes the grief even more threatening, which then makes us even more determined to avoid it. And so on.
Anxiety is the perfect ally to help us avoid grief, because it loves keeping us busy.
Anxiety can come up with 30 things that need to be done at any moment - and it wants to us do all of them RIGHT NOW.
This dynamic of holding grief at bay with anxiety usually happens unconsciously. So when anxiety finally goes too far, and people start to try to calm it down, they often don't realize that their anxiety is there to help them to avoid the emotion that they're even more determined not to feel.
Because as long as they remain unwilling to feel their hidden grief, their anxiety probably won't go away. Not only because of the unconscious way it’s helping them (creating a distraction from grief), but also because the person is lacking the grounding that sadness and grief normally bring.
If you're experiencing chronic anxiety and you suspect that this might be a factor, the only way to truly fix it is to let grief and sadness back in, by being willing to feel them. And in the case of grief, this means embarking on a journey of diving into the grief you carry deep within, and allowing yourself to truly grieve.
If this feels overwhelming, like the grief would just be too heavy to bear, don't worry. (Your anxiety can relax!) There are ways to intentionally engage with grief that help you move through it quickly, and that create a container for it so it doesn't take over your entire life. You don't have to put everything on hold to do this!
To find out more about how to efficiently work through grief, read this article here. And if you’re ready to go but you’re feeling the need for one-on-one support, sign up for a free Emotional Breakthrough session with me and I'll help you clarify your path forward.