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The Three Arrows of Anxiety

We all experience anxiety from time to time, whether it’s worry about an exam, first date nerves or the anxiety that accompanies an important meeting. This is completely normal and the feelings of anxiety usually pass as soon as the ‘stressor’ has passed.

However, for some of us anxiety is a longer term experience. We may or may not know where it came from, but either way it causes us considerable distress. We might feel overwhelmed by worrying thoughts and constantly on edge, or troubled by a range of physical symptoms such as pins and needles, digestive problems, sweating, nausea, dizziness, hot flushes and ‘jelly legs’. This foundational experience of anxiety is the first arrow.

The second and third arrows of anxiety are our reactions to the first arrow which actually serve only to heighten our anxiety. The second arrow is resistance. We want the anxiety to go away and we struggle against it, but unfortunately this merely creates more tension. The third arrow is ‘anxiety about anxiety’. We may worry about what’s happening to our mind, or we focus excessively on the physical symptoms, wondering what they could mean or worrying that perhaps we have a serious health condition.

When we’re anxious, our stress response is active and the second and third arrows of anxiety can keep this response going over an extended period. That’s why, when I work with clients, one of the things we look at together is reducing the stress response. Research suggests that mindfulness is a great way to reduce the stress response, and as a mindfulness practitioner myself I’d have to agree! Exercise too can be very useful as it helps to disperse stress hormones while increasing the feel-good hormone, endorphin. Relaxing forms of distraction, such as meeting up with friends or watching a comedy film, can also help by taking our mind off our worries and distracting us from troubling symptoms.

This article is not a replacement for professional advice. I would always suggest you seek professional advice if you are struggling with anxiety. However, understanding the three arrows of anxiety can help lessen the mystery and fear surrounding anxiety, while recognising the role of the stress response offers you the opportunity to take steps to help calm the nervous system and feel a little more in control.

© Michelle Drapeau, 2019
The metaphor of The Three Arrows of Anxiety is based on the Buddhist Parable of the Second Arrow