By Greg Bodin, MFT
Greg is a therapist at the Gay Therapy Center who specializes in sexual compulsion and addiction. He sees clients at the Union Square Gay Therapy Center in San Francisco, and worldwide by phone and Skype. You can read more about Greg here.
Many research studies have shown that LGBTQ people experience higher rates of anxiety. This is no surprise given what most of us have to deal with growing up.
Anxiety takes lots of forms
If you have anxiety of some sort, you probably have a very clear idea of what goes on in your mind. Perhaps you chew on the same scary thoughts over and over in your head. Or maybe your vivid imagination unfolds an anxiety drama filled with fear and dread of what might happen. Or perhaps you fight with obsessive thoughts that are literally like sirens in your head and that overwhelm you.
You try to control it
My guess is that when these thoughts occur you feel it in your body first: you tense up, your breathing gets shallow, and your heart starts pounding. You also might start to notice feelings of anxiety, dread, overwhelm, etc. Instinctively, you try to control, avoid, and/or eliminate this experience. You may attempt to stop the anxious thoughts by trying to distract yourself from them, argue with them, or numb yourself from them.
From what I observed with clients, two things are almost always true: 1) trying to control the anxious thoughts intensifies the anxiety experience and 2) the anxious thoughts come back eventually.
Control doesn’t work
The reason that control doesn’t work is easy to understand. When you have an external problem, exerting effort to control and address it typically works. If you discover a road closed while commuting to your office, your mind can quickly sort through possibilities and identify the best new route. If your chair makes a squeaky noise, you can identify possible causes and potential solutions to get rid of the squeak.
Problem solving works well in the external world. Our minds do a great job of identifying and applying solutions to external problems.
Our minds don’t do as good a job when working with internal stuff. We can attempt to use our minds to get control of anxious or obsessive thoughts but we never seem to get better. In fact, our minds do a pretty awful job of getting thoughts under control. If you don’t believe me, try this simple test: set a timer for one minute and pay attention to the thoughts that occur. There is one rule, however. Do not think about lemons. You can think about anything else but absolutely do not think about lemons.
You already know how this turns out – the very idea of trying to control your mind leads to more struggle and more thoughts. You will think a lot about lemons for that minute.
If you apply this concept to your anxious thoughts, you can see how controlling them doesn’t work. If attempting to control your worries would work, wouldn’t you no longer be worried? Instead, attempting to control anxiety often intensifies the fear and dread, ramps up the worrisome thoughts and feelings, and leads to more suffering and misery.
What can you do about your anxious thoughts?
What is the alternative? The alternative to control is willingness. Willingness to have the anxious thoughts, the obsessive sirens, the chattering worries. Willingness to be present and observe them rather than fight with them, control them, or suppress them.
When you create some willingness, you can often decrease the anxiety that accompanies the control attempts. You can begin to view the anxious thoughts as noise in your head – something that comes and goes but that doesn’t really effect you.When I first introduce this idea to clients I often get some reservations and doubts. How can I possibly be suggesting that they be willing to have something that they have been fighting with for their entire lives?
I cannot promise that anxious thoughts will go away. In fact, I am pretty sure that if you’ve had them before that you will have them again. However, you can change the way you relate to these thoughts. You can approach them willingly rather than trying to control and struggle with them and you may discover that your overall anxiety lessens with your increased willingness. You may also discover that anxious thoughts themselves aren’t forever and do tend to pass over time. Two caveats: 1) this takes practice and 2) being willing in a small way first is a good idea.
Give willingness a try
The easiest way to practice willingness is to identify a small and finite way in which you can be more willing to have your anxious thoughts. Perhaps you can set a timer for 10 minutes. During this time notice your thoughts like you watch images on a movie screen. If 10 minutes feels overwhelming, try for five minutes or two minutes. Take some deep and relaxing breaths while you do this. Be curious about the thoughts and what they are saying. See if you can take on the part of an objective observer who has no relationship to these thoughts. Notice if you are able to sit with these anxious thoughts with complete willingness, even for only a few minutes. Observe what happens and see if there is a difference from your normal control experience.
Until LGBTQ people achieve full equality and social acceptance we may continue to see higher rates of anxiety. Fortunately each of us has the opportunity to learn how to change our response to the experience of anxiety.