Nonviolent Communication for Anxiety
“As long as I think I ‘should’ do it, I’ll resist it, even if I want very much to do it.”
This article is about the feeling commonly known as anxiety and how we approach it with NVC. It does not cover conditions known as anxiety disorders. This article is not intended to diagnose or prescribe, nor offer medical or psychological advice of any kind. This article is for educational purposes only. Please seek professional support if you need it.
What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
In Nonviolent Communication (NVC) we treat anxiety as we do most other feelings or emotions. (The exceptions are rage, shame, guilt, and depression — which are beyond the scope of this article.)
From the standpoint of NVC, feelings emerge from — and can lead us to — our Universal Human Needs.
For example, if your need for safety is attended to, you have certain feelings. If your need for safety is not met, you experience other feelings. It is the same for all the other needs.
According to the website MedlinePlus.gov:
“Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness. It might cause you to sweat, feel restless and tense, and have a rapid heartbeat. It can be a normal reaction to stress. For example, you might feel anxious when faced with a difficult problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision. It can help you to cope. The anxiety may give you a boost of energy or help you focus. But for people with anxiety disorders, the fear is not temporary and can be overwhelming.”
What Causes Anxiety?
Like all other feelings, anxiety is caused when consciously or unconsciously we perceive certain needs to be at risk.
An upcoming task — the outcome of which could have important consequences for us — can raise our level of stress and lead us to feeling anxious. This could be due to any number of needs at play including competence, acceptance, belonging, self-acceptance, or safety.
What leads us to experience anxiety — the needs involved and the meaning we are giving a particular situation — are entirely context-dependent.
However, anxiety itself does not injure us. If we can be present to the feeling, and allow it to lead us to the need — that which is most important to us in that situation — we increase the possibility of finding ways to meet that need or set of needs.
When we try to suppress the feeling by ignoring it, diverting our attention, or trying to talk ourselves out of what we’re feeling, we are less likely to connect with or identify the underlying values or needs.
When we are less consciously aware of our needs — which are also our deepest human drivers — we are less likely to contribute to them being fulfilled.
Conversely, when we are more consciously aware of our needs we are more likely to find ways to fulfill them.
How Does NVC Help Me Deal With Anxiety?
NVC reminds me that anxiety is simply a feeling, and therefore neither “good” nor “bad.”
Feelings are like indicators on the dashboard of your car. They are there to let you know that something is happening at a deeper level.
NVC teaches us not only to discern what we are feeling, but also to recognize that it is emerging from a deeper need.
NVC in practice is not an intellectualized process. We feel our feelings in our mind-body structure.
This is an important distinction: figuring out what we are feeling and needing versus making direct contact with our feelings and needs.
With patience and practice you can locate where feelings are showing up in your body.
One analogy would be to think of needs as a flower and feelings as the scent of that flower.
By staying present with our feelings — how and where they are showing up — they can lead us to the underlying need or needs.
And needs themselves are neither “good” nor “bad.” They are simply how Life itself is showing up inside a person in a particular moment.
NVC will help you notice what you are feeling and then help you connect with the underlying treasure of what is so meaningful or important.
What frequently happens is that we can fight the feeling — resist it. Of course, anxiety is uncomfortable! However, as they say in consciousness studies: what you resist persists!
Sometimes people think, what is wrong with me?, or I shouldn’t be feeling this way! — and then we are farther from identifying the underlying need.
When you identify the deeper need — whether it is safety, effectiveness, or connection — you are more likely to be able to craft strategies to contribute to that need or set of needs.
What Can You Do to Stop Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural feeling arising from an identifiable internal or external stressor. (An example of an internal stressor could be our thinking or worry in anticipation of something.) The natural feeling of anxiety is different from what is reported regarding so-called “anxiety disorders” in which the stimulus can be quite challenging to identify.
“Anxiety disorders” can have both psychological and physiological roots in the nervous system — which is why they are beyond the scope of this particular article.
Typical anxiety (as opposed to an anxiety disorder) will tend to wane when either the stimulus stops or when the underlying needs are fulfilled.
Though it can be uncomfortable, NVC would not have the goal of “getting rid of” anxiety, any more than you would want to get rid of the indicator in your car letting you know that your car is low on gas, oil, battery charge, or tire pressure.
In NVC, feelings are indicators that there is something deeper going on.
The way we work with feelings — including anxiety — is the following:
- We are present with what we are feeling,
- We give ourselves empathy or get it from others,
- Once we are self-connected and have identified the underlying needs we can more easily find a route to getting those needs met,
- When the needs are met our feelings shift.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg On Anxiety
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg would tell us that anxiety is a feeling like all others: life-connected feelings — letting us know that one or more of our needs are attended to and fulfilled, or unattended to and unfulfilled.
However, he posited four exceptions: anger (rage), shame, guilt and depression. Dr. Rosenberg treated these four as alarm bells that tell us we are disconnected from our needs. When we experience one of these four, he instructed us to look at our thinking — what we are telling ourselves. The thoughts themselves give us clues as to what the needs are.
For example, if we are telling ourselves, “that is unfair!” — then the underlying need is fairness, or trusting that our needs matter. If we are telling ourselves, “he just keeps disrespecting me!” — then that gives us the clue that the underlying need is respect or consideration.
Anxiety, like any other feeling, is an indicator to pay attention inside and connect to what is important or valuable to us at the deepest levels. He referred to this as the Life inside us — and used a language of Universal Human Needs.
This is why NVC is called a Language of Life!
PuddleDancer Press books on NVC & Anxiety
PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and anxiety.
NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of deep self-care as well as mutual care.
Using NVC to handle uncomfortable emotions, including anxiety, predictably gives us more effective outcomes than many of the habits we have learned of suppressing emotions or telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel that way.
Our books can help you:
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- Offer compassionate understanding to others,
- Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
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- Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict,
- Create mutual understanding without coercion.
Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on anxiety, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.
Check out our catalog of books… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!