What is Anxiety and What Can I Do About It?

Anxiety can get the better of all of us from time to time. Worries about what may happen can take on a life of their own and make us feel overwhelmed. Sometimes, understanding what anxiety is and how to relate to it can help us feel more in control of our lives and our emotions.

Anxiety plays a vital role in our lives and is not always a bad thing. Feelings of anxiety protect us from harm and warn us of impending danger. If we felt no anxiety, we might not get out of the way of a bus in time or react appropriately if we find ourselves in a dangerous situation. However, because of our big and powerful human brains, we have the unique ability to imagine an infinite variety threatening scenarios. Mark Twain captures this in his famous quote saying “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” In Robert Sapolsky’s book by this same title, he poses the question “why don’t zebras get ulcers?” Zebras get chased by predators every day and yet aren’t preoccupied with worry most times. The reason is that their brains don’t permit them to imagine all the dangers of the next day and instead, cause them to feel afraid only when there is present danger and to be calm when it is gone.

Anxiety “Lies” to Us

Anxiety is the great magnifier of emotions. And why wouldn’t it be? “Better safe than sorry” is indeed a useful approach to staying safe, but also a recipe for being immobilized by the threats of the future. So how do we know when we have slipped past the point of our anxiety protecting us and into the territory of unhelpful anxiety? The answer is subjective but a great question to ask ourselves is “is this anxiety helping me resolve the issues I’m worried about or is it actually getting in the way?” This is an unnatural question for many of us to ask ourselves because the feared situation/thing stimulating the anxiety always feels like a real danger. Anxiety insists that it is telling us the truth and resists our initial efforts to quell it. Even though many times we want to feel less anxious, we protect and nurture our anxiety believing that it will help protect us and motivate us toward a solution. If you want proof of this, the next time you see a friend who over-anxious, tell them to “just calm down” and see the anger and defensiveness that it so naturally produces.

Identify When Anxiety is Not Helpful

So how do we help ourselves in moments of high anxiety? The first necessary step is identifying what it is that we are actually anxious about. This can be trickier than it sounds. If someone tells me they are anxious about taking a long flight, this isn’t quite enough information. What is the actual fear there? Is it that the person will die, that the person will get sick and embarrassed, or that if they actually complete that flight, that they have to deal with a challenge on the other end? Next I often ask people to do an honest assessment of how real the danger to their physical or emotional safety really is. For example, someone terrified of their review at work may feel like their world will end if they get a poor assessment and make the mental leap to fears of being immediately fired rather than the more likely situation that they will receive mild criticism and a chance to improve. If we can identify that our level of anxiety is not actually warranted or helpful, we can then safely try and bring it down.

Once we have identified that is safe to lower our anxiety and that we are perceiving a greater threat than truly exists, there are some things we can do in the moment to help calm ourselves.

  1. Distraction: Do you ever feel like a problem is unsolvable, only to realize that when you take a break and come back to it, your mind is clearer and more able to tackle life’s challenges? If you are anxious and overwhelmed, try and take a walk, watch a pleasing show, make some tea, or any other activity that allows your brain to reset.
  2. Breath: Slow, deep breathing is excellent for signaling to your brain that you are safe, and allowing it to turn off “fight or flight” mode, and turn back on a more calm, clear headed, and capable you. I recommend setting a timer for 3-5 minutes to give yourself time to relax.
  3. Talk to yourself: Talking to yourself is not at all for “crazy” people. Extremely useful phrases to repeat are often “I am safe,” and my favorite for the work environment “this is NOT an emergency.” Of course, these phrases should only be used when you are in fact safe and not in an emergency.

Not all anxiety can be resolved by these easy to use skills, but it is often very helpful to know a few and have them on hand for stressful times. If anxiety persists in your life or if you feel like you could use more help reducing anxiety, talk to your therapist or mental health provider about how to manage the anxiety in your life.

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