My Understanding of Anxiety
As vulnerable mortals we have built-in systems to alert us to danger. When we hear an unfamiliar sound, we jump. When we see a sinister shape in the shadows, we cringe or get the urge to run. When we feel water rising around our toes, we spring onto higher ground. It can be essential to our survival to react with alarm. Our bodies automatically ask: Is there danger here? Should I protect myself? Should I run? Should I attack? Ah, no danger after all? It was nothing important. Thank goodness, I can relax. That brief moment between alarm and action contains the feeling of anxiety.
An instant of anxious feelings is an essential part of the quick, yet natural, reactions to the unknown. An unexpected stimulus leads us to alertness, then our recognition and interpretation of the stimulus lets us call off the alarm. Or run for the hills, or gird up for battle. That is how us mammals are supposed to function. When the body’s alarm lasts more than that brief initial moment, when the anxiety response gets stuck or habitual, then there is a problem.
Anxiety, when it lasts more than a brief moment, can be very uncomfortable. It can cause weakness, racing pulse, tightening of the throat, hyperventilating, shaking, sweating, and erratic breathing. Extended anxiety can lead to surges of panic, fears of insanity, and expectation of death. It hurts. And none of these responses are useful when a real danger is present. Anxiety by itself is the essential scanning for danger which runs amuck. The most common response to these unpleasant bodily symptoms of anxiety is to avoid situations that brought them on. Unfortunately that doesn’t fix the problem and often makes it worse.
Anxiety run amok can easily become a cyclical nightmare. When feelings of anxiety cause discomfort, the person dreads feeling that discomfort. Now the person has both anxious feelings plus dread of anxious feelings. Think of a circular pattern: strange noise ==> fear/anxiety response ==> anxiety remains too long ==> miserable feelings ==>anxiety over having more miserable feelings ==> more fear/anxiety response ==> more anxiety ==> so on and on.
When this anxiety response takes over, it can escalate into panic attacks and other acute symptoms, or it can become pervasive and random. Like a bad habit, the feeling of anxiety can pop up all by itself at apparently random triggers. Perhaps there are deep memories in the unconscious that set off the body’s alarm system which make no obvious sense to the person experiencing the anxiety. For example, if being late for appointments triggers an anxiety response, the person can experience an anxiety response in heavy traffic — even when there is no appointment pending. The ever-busy, imaginative brain sets up possible scenarios which trigger more anxiety. This is called Generalized Anxiety. The anxiety response just jumps into action without a clear precipitating danger.
The first helpful understanding in dealing with anxiety is recognizing that it is a normal response mechanism that has become overstimulated. The second helpful understanding is recognizing that prolonged anxiety really doesn’t help. The alarm of possible danger alerts anxious feelings which instruct you to make a fast evaluation of the real risks. The proper function of anxiety is to make a fast logical evaluation: Is there danger here or is there no danger here? Prolonged anxiety gets in the way of answering the question in any immediate, clear-headed way. The normal anxiety response is instantaneous — yes or no. When the answer to this simple question is not immediate, anxiety grows and becomes an issue in itself. Alarm! Danger? No danger? When anxiety lingers, part of the discomfort it brings is keeping the person in a state of indecision when there is still a risk of injury looming.
Sometimes issues of fear, indecision, and procrastination foster the extension of the anxiety response. The person is afraid of making the wrong call. What if he calls off the anxiety alarm and the danger was real after all? That is a big risk. What is the harm in letting the alarm keep ringing, just in case the danger is sneaking around somewhere? What if she is just a chronically bad judge of dangers? What if she believes the world is so fraught with dangers, we all really live in the crime shows that inhabit television? If each storm is reported as the Storm of the Century, how do we know when to turn off our alarms? The media seems to profit from revving up our anxiety alarms. Try to remember that not making a decision is in itself a decision; it is a decision to let anxious feelings permeate the situation. You can be wrong about whether there is danger afoot, but not deciding is not going to protect you. Many people conclude it is safer to decide that every possible alarm is indicative of disaster. That may feel like a safe call but it can’t be sustained very long by the human nervous system. It turns into generalized anxiety, popping up at random. It begins to hurt.
The secret to “unsticking” the extended anxiety reaction is to practice dealing with it logically, without fear or procrastination, so you can move to the post-anxiety step: action. Let’s return to the primitive scenario. You hear an unusual sound and you jump. You start to feel anxious. You think, Is that danger? Here is the prime target. You have to answer that question loud and firmly. You decide right then: danger or no danger. That allows you to take action. If there is danger, run! Or fight. However, if there is no danger, or at least very little risk of danger, have a stern talk with yourself. Say, “Hey, Mr. Anxiety, You! You made me jump at that loud noise. So I jumped. I now conclude that it was most likely a car back-firing, not Armageddon. Fine, you did your job. You can leave now and I can relax in the knowledge that car-back-firings are not harmful to me. Now I am going to actively calm myself and enjoy my superior skills at identifying danger.” Decision leads to action. Indecision and inaction lead to anxiety.
There may still be unpleasant physical sensations afterward, but after toughing them out for awhile, they will diminish. You will begin to teach yourself to not let the anxiety part of your impulses hijack your entire reaction. Your anxiety triggers will return to working properly with effort. You can enjoy the confidence and efficiency of identifying something as dangerous or you can enjoy the peaceful conclusion that there was no danger. You can always tell real danger, when you think in a realistic framework, because you know you need to take some sort of evasive action. Remember that not taking action allows the anxious feelings take over. Be decisive when danger is real, then actively enjoy the relief when the saber-toothed tiger was only a house cat. Practicing this skill and commending yourself for decisive action are critically important to keeping the anxiety alarm brief and functional.
Creative tasks can be helpful to get your anxiety trigger to be less sensitive. We can’t be fearful and anxious at the same time as we are having fun. If your anxiety trigger makes you jumpy, try jumping. Up and down. Literally. Once you discover that the water rising around your feet isn’t really a deadly tsunami, splash in the puddle. Wiggle your toes. If your anxiety sneaks up on you, sneak up on it: schedule an appointment with Mr. Anxiety. For example, let your anxious feelings run wild for 5 minutes every mid-day, then tell Mr. Anxiety to get lost until his next appointment. When CNN tells you the sky is falling, and it doesn’t fall, tell that Idiotbox not to scare people for ratings anymore, and turn to the funny animal videos. These exercises can convince your deep-dark brain to remind Mr. Anxiety to do his basic job and no more.
What of those anxiety triggers that are more subtle? Swimsuit shopping, nasty employers, IRS audits, creepy landlords, unexpected expenses, ad infinitum. There are situations in which our system to detect danger is more challenging. Anxiety is rightly triggered but the decision of whether there is imminent danger is not easy to determine. This is life in the modern world which is creating more global anxiety among us all. The alarm systems of our primitive brains aren’t built for this level of complexity. It is helpful to discover the issue that the functional anxiety alarm is attempting to point out. Remember to focus on the issue, not the anxiety reaction. Have a dialog with yourself about what your anxiety is trying to tell you. Define the danger precisely. For example, if being summoned to your supervisor brings worry, sweat, and desire to dive under a chair, have a heart-to-heart with your feelings. Ask yourself: What is so alarming here? Is the boss a nasty human being in every possible way? How much power does the boss really hold over you? Am I afraid he will discover I goof off too much? Is the larger issue with his personality or his authority or the job itself? Get specific about where the danger seems to be and where it is not. An alarm has sounded, but rather than responding with anxiety, you can respond with investigation and clarification. If you understand anxiety as too much “treading water” or “revving the engine in neutral,” think of clarifying the related issues as part of the action which needs to take place. Swimsuit shopping anxiety is best addressed with action on nutrition and exercise and self-acceptance, not avoiding anxiety in the stores. IRS audit anxiety requires sorting receipts and finding documentation, not stuffing papers in a drawer and worrying. Cautiously, getting to know the creepy neighbors is best before deciding who is dangerous and who is just unusual. Action is less effort than worry. Sometimes chronic anxiety is telling you important things need your attention. Try to use the best anxiety has to offer, and work at addressing dangers head-on.