Why do we have anxiety?
As humans, we are hardwired to experience emotions. While we like to think we are driven by reason, our limbic system (emotional brain) kicks on before our prefrontal cortex (logic/thinking brain) when experiencing core emotions like anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. Many of our emotions can be uncomfortable; however, they have played an important role in our evolution and have been essential to our survival. Core emotions are designed by nature to trigger physical impulses that prompt adaptive action. Although it often gets a bad rap, anxiety is important because it helps us manage the physical and unconscious impulses of fear.
Anxiety signals to us that something is about to happen or could happen, subsequently sharpening our focus and energizing us to take action. A common misconception is that anxiety is always a problem when actually it is an important emotional experience that we can use to our advantage. Anxiety not only alerts us to pay attention, the physiological changes associated with anxiety motivate or energize us to take action to address a need or goal. The difficult aspect of anxiety is that we can experience it due to something currently distressing in the present and we can experience anxiety due to past events that we continue to feel threatened despite our current reality being safe. Because of this complexity, it is important we get to know our anxiety so we can stay attuned to its message rather than dismissive and avoidant.
Once we understand the motivation of our anxiety, we can take the necessary measures to attend to its source and resolve the discomfort that apprehension or worry induces. Think of the nervous energy we might feel about an upcoming exam or class presentation. This anxiety is alerting us that we need to prepare so we might then take action by studying or practicing our talking points. Without this warning signal, we might not be as motivated to attend to our academic needs and find ourselves falling short of our future goals. It is important to note that anxiety is most often related to the future. Although our control over the future is limited, when we are attuned to our anxiety, we are able to respond to our apprehension with helpful behavior rather than reactive or impulsive behavior.
If I understand that my anxiety is alerting me to the fact that my grades or professional performance matter to me, I am more likely to engage in healthy behavior that supports these values, like getting a good night’s sleep before my exam or presentation, rather than reactive behavior that might challenge my performance like drinking or avoiding prep work. Once we understand what our anxiety is alerting us to, we can engage in self-validation practices that often bring us some sense of peace while also providing clarity that establishes a sense of control. An example of helpful self-validation might sound like, “It makes sense that I am nervous about my performance because good grades matter to me. My anxiety is trying to get me to prepare the best I can”.
When anxiety becomes dysfunctional
So when does our anxiety cross the threshold from helpful to inhibiting? Anxiety becomes dysfunctional when we are unable to listen to it or make use of it. Anxiety alerts us to pay attention to something that matters to us, but when we struggle with interpreting our anxiety accurately, we struggle to respond to it effectively. Not understanding the motivation or function of our anxiety can quickly leave us feeling overwhelmed with stress or helpless in coping. Overwhelming anxiety creates paralysis rather than action.
For example, when we get stuck in a negative loop of worries, we struggle to problem-solve or effectively attend to our needs. For some of us who don’t know what to do with anxiety, we might turn to harmful behaviors that look like anything from substance use to vegging out in front of the tv for hours. When we are too overwhelmed by the physical experience of anxiety or worry, we can become consumed by this emotional state rather than utilizing it to respond to our environment in a useful way.
Recommended practices for improving anxiety
So how do we change or improve our relationship with anxiety? Here are some considerations for increasing our effectiveness in managing anxiety.
Mindfulness requires us to be present with our anxiety from a non-judgmental and accepting stance. When we approach our anxiety with curiosity rather than judgment or avoidance, we are more likely to gain insight into what our anxiety is trying to communicate to us.
Consider these prompts for practicing mindfulness:
- Where do you feel anxiety in your body?
- How does your mind respond to the physical manifestation of anxiety?
- How do you feel about your anxiety? What urges come with these feelings? Are they helpful?
Rethinking our thinking
An important element of emotion regulation is perspective. Once we have started building our mindfulness muscle, we can gain valuable insight into how our feelings influence our thoughts and vice versa. Observing and recognizing helpful vs unhelpful thoughts can play a key role in effectively navigating emotional experiences. Common themes of anxiety-congruent thinking include helplessness and hyperfocus on elements outside of our control. Anxiety can also present as repetitive thoughts that keep us stuck in worry and interfere with problem-solving. If we can apply acceptance to elements outside of our control and become more familiar with attending to elements within our control, we establish a strong sense of competency and reduce our vulnerability to helplessness.
Consider the following prompts when redirecting or reframing unhelpful thoughts:
- Am I catastrophizing? What is a fact vs what is a feeling?
- What can I control in the present?
- What is the narrative of my anxiety? Is this narrative true?
Because anxiety and our nervous system have such a strong relationship, we may have to address our bodies before we can get to a place of balance in our thoughts. If our anxiety starts to escalate to fear, our fight-or-flight system is activated and we are vulnerable to decisions or actions that escalate distress rather than manage it. This is where implementing self-soothing techniques becomes an important practice. Consider working with your therapist on the following distress tolerance practices:
- Deep breathing is one of the great calming tools that we all can access. Inhale slowly to fill your chest and exhale as if you were pushing air into the bottom of your belly. Repeat 6-10 times and mindfully observe how you feel.
- Cold exposure helps deactivate our fight or flight response and immediately disrupts thoughts that escalate our emotions. Grab ice from the freezer or a cold compress. Hold for 15-30 seconds while managing your breath. Repeat.
- Paired muscle relaxation has been shown to dramatically reduce stress because it counteracts the fight or flight response. Start by clenching your fist for 5 seconds, then quickly unclench while exhaling. Repeat. The most important part of this practice is noticing the difference between tension and relaxation when you are clenched versus unclenched.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one-third of U.S. adults will be affected by an anxiety disorder in their lifetime but only half of these individuals will seek professional help. Anxiety disorder distress is very difficult to work through without professional help. Studies have shown that individuals who participate in treatment experience noticeable improvement and relief. Therapy can be very effective for improving your understanding of your particular struggles with anxiety. Your therapist can help give you insight into what your anxiety is trying to tell you while also providing support in developing skills that increase your effectiveness in responding to anxiety.