Anxiety is always about control. Needing control is always a lack of trust.

Let me say it again…

Anxiety is always about control. Needing control is always a lack of trust.

If you experience anxiety in any of its many forms, or if you have what I euphemistically refer to a “strong” relationship with control, you need to look at your ability to trust.

What is anxiety and what are its many forms? Anxiety, according to, is “distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune” OR “earnest or tense desire; eagerness.” For my purposes here, I am only concerned with the former of the two definitions.

Anxiety is an emotional reaction, characterized by uneasiness, which is often experienced physiologically and easily manifests itself behaviorally. It is possible to control one’s behavioral reaction to anxiety, but not easy. People who attempt to beat a lie detector test must learn to control their physiological reactions to lying. A skilled poker player must learn to control how she manifests her anxiety, lest she tip off the other players with a “tell.” I once observed to my husband that watching a poker room when you are not playing is akin to watching the action in a nail salon. He agreed, and added that though it doesn’t look like much is going on, “there is a lot of tension in that room.”

Not all anxiety is bad. If you don’t feel good in a given situation, you might be picking up on something accurate, and that which you want to avoid. If someone is driving erratically, your anxiety about them may cause you to distance your car, take another route, maybe even contact authorities. If you are in a social or business setting and you feel uneasy with someone, perhaps you are picking up on an untrustworthy quality about them.

Anxiety varies in levels and intensity. To assess whether anxiety is a problem, one of the factors to consider is whether it is proportionate to the stimulus. Biting your nails down as you wait for a loved one to come out of surgery is proportionate. Freaking out because the neighbors are coming over and your house isn’t tidy is not. Being afraid to take a routine car ride is not proportionate. Being afraid to jump out of a plane  – much more proportionate. Anxiety that interferes with your ability to complete necessary, everyday tasks is a problem. People who are concerned about their anxiety generally have determined that their level of anxiety and/or its intensity is disproportionate to the situation that provokes it.

Anxiety takes many forms: obsessing, being compulsive ( defines a compulsion as “a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act”), panic attacks, excessive worry, a stress disorder following seriously-threatening stimuli (PTSD, Acute Stress Disorder), phobias, social phobia (including performance anxiety), agoraphobia (fear of leaving home, often because of a fear of panicking without being close to a comfort zone).

So where does control come in?

Control refers to our power in a situation. As in agoraphobia, people often fear leaving home or being in situations in which escape from that situation might be difficult; in other words, “If I panic, I won’t have control over my circumstances.” Similarly, in social phobia, “I can’t control what people think and I’m afraid they’ll think I’m weird or stupid. I’m afraid I won’t be able to control myself because I’m so anxious.” You see the pattern…

Even with smaller, more subtle anxieties, like getting upset over getting somewhere on time, we are trying to exercise control. We’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t arrive on time. We are trying to control the negative circumstances in our lives.

Just as some level of anxiety is appropriate and helpful, some level of control is appropriate and helpful. I am a planner. I believe in planning to create optimal circumstances. My challenge in my life has been to not overvalue planning, and to be flexible about plans. Essentially, a plan gave me an ILLUSION of control. I can’t tell you how many times my plan went awry and things worked out fine…or better.

Compulsivity finds its way subtly into our lives. Compulsive cleaning, hand sanitizing, listmaking…Sometimes there is a real fear (fear of contamination); other times, it’s just a feeling of unease if something isn’t done. Lots of times, a compulsive person knows it isn’t even important or irrational. They will even laugh at themselves as they rub out a spot on a countertop. What are they trying to control? Their environment. Why? Because it gives them an illusion of being on top of things and in control of things around them.

On to trust

In order to reduce anxiety, we need to learn to give up control, or at least reduce our attempts to control. This statement usually spikes people’s anxiety. Or, perhaps this statement sounds reasonable to you – even desirable – but you cannot fathom how to make this your reality. You make this your reality by learning totrust.

Think of “trust” as a verb. There is the noun, such as having trust for someone. But then there is “to trust,” the verb. You do not have to feel trust, or be assured that trust is present. You do, however, need to think and act with trust. A subtle change in wording, a HUGE change in meaning.

Trust in whom? Or what? Well, that depends. It depends on what your anxiety and your control is about.

Sometimes we need to trust ourselves more, that we’ll handle whatever comes our way. So to reduce our anxiety about a situation, we shut down worried thoughts with self-talk such as, “Whatever happens, I’ll handle it. Though I’m not sure how right now, I am a capable person and I handle whatever comes my way.” It might be hard to say such a thing if you’ve let yourself down numerous times. Maybe before you can trust yourself, you have to evaluate your decision-making skills and find better ways to handle things so then you can trust yourself better, thus freeing yourself from anxiety and superficial attempts to control. Maybe you need to review your accomplishments and things you’ve handled well so you can remind yourself why you can trust yourself.

Sometimes we need to trust others. In a relationship, we try to control things because we don’t trust our partner. We pick out our own gifts because we don’t trust them to not disappoint us. We question fidelity because we don’t trust that we are connected, or that we’ve picked a trustworthy partner. We try to limit our partner’s choices because we don’t trust they will make good decisions. Or because we fear losing them, which means we don’t trust the relationship to have longevity, or we don’t trust ourselves to be adequate enough to keep our partner by our side. We criticize our partners and stress over their behavior because we don’t trust that their own way of doing things is going to be good enough. We stress over how our house or our kids or our attire represents us because we don’t trust that our qualities will impress on their own merit.

Sometimes our inability to trust is at a more spiritual level. If you are a believer in God, you may need to explore your faith for reasons to trust God more. What does your faith tell you about why things work the way they do? What is human action and will vs. God’s plan? Is your God kind? Does your God place challenges in your life to help you grow? Or does God not control circumstances, but cheers you on to grow from adversity regardless? Does your God love you?

Whether you use a spiritual language that includes “God” or not, I believe that to overcome anxiety and let go of control, everyone needs to explore their belief system about how things work in this world and beyond…why bad things happen to good people…how to handle adversity…where we as individuals fit in a larger scheme.

A colleague and friend of mine once said, “I believe that the Universe is in a conspiracy for our greater good.”

An atheist may believe that we make decisions and there are consequences to those decisions, so it might help them to focus on learning from mistakes. Or that life is like being dealt a hand and, for good or bad, you just play the hand as best as you can.

Whatever our spiritual framework, it helps to find a “system” in our hearts that we can trust so we can prioritize the things that really matter to us and not waste time or energy stressing over or controlling circumstances that don’t. If energy were a currency, an anxious person is in debt. To climb out of debt, an anxious person needs to be more cautious about how they “spend” energy, so that there is some to spend the things they have prioritized higher.

If you are stressing about a clean house, you aren’t enjoying your kids as much as you can. If you are stressing about your partner’s behavior, you certainly aren’t enjoying what they are. If they continue to disappoint you, perhaps you could spend that currency on something for yourself, such as a pursuit or curiosity you think would enrich your life. If you are anxious socially, and worry about your ability to connect with others, you aren’t focused on tools or opportunities to connect better OR on the other person, for that matter. All that energy is going inward. It’s no wonder stress and anxiety leads to gastrointestinal upset.

A young woman I knew years ago once said, “It’s safe to fall if you trust the ground you walk on.”

That says it all.