The Demystification of Anxiety
We’ve all experienced anxiety at some level before. But, after the trembling stops and your heart rate recovers from the thousands, have you ever stopped to wonder, why do I experience these feelings? Is there something wrong with my personality? Do other people experience this? What exactly is Anxiety?
If nobody has told you before, I’ll be the first, there’s nothing wrong with you. Anxiety is a perfectly naturally occurring phenomenon. We experience anxiety due to the apprehension of uncertain events. It’s not inherently ‘bad’, the core function of anxiety is actually to protect you.
Let say, for whatever reason, you’re trekking through the sub-Saharan African forests, and you happen to come across a 6ft Silver Back Gorilla. It is very likely you will experience high levels of anxiety as a by-product of your fight or flight system being activated by adrenaline, preparing you physically and psychologically to run or attack the threat. In such a scenario, the anxiety is appropriate and even appreciated.
Although, in our cozy 21st-century world, thankfully, it is extraordinarily rare that such an occurrence will happen. Instead, we often experience anxiety at rather trivial things.
Whereas It is fine to experience anxiety every now and again, it becomes a problem when it begins to interfere with your day, preventing you from living life on your own terms.
Personally, I can’t tell you the number of times I have wanted to do something but haven’t due to feelings of anxiety. When I think back to some of the potential dates I missed out on, it drives me up the wall. But, sure, missing a few dating opportunities isn’t the end of the world. And the relief experienced when you don’t do the thing causing you anxiety may feel good and seem harmless in the short term, but it is important to learn that, if you leave anxiety unattended and don’t pull it out at the roots, like a weed, it grows stronger and keeps coming back.
When you avoid the thing which causes you anxiety, you are teaching your brain to reinforce the avoidance behavior, by laying down neural networks to support this response.
With repetitive emotional (drinking 5 shots of vodka) or physical avoidance (hiding or running away), this behavior can begin to shrink your world. If you let it, Anxiety can prevent you from living the life you want to live. It can even lead to depression, and suicide. Fear not, it’s not all doom and gloom, you will be glad to know; our brains have an incredible ability to re-wire themselves according to the tasks we demand of them.
This is referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’. Understanding that with consistent dedication, you are capable of reducing, or even entirely conquering your anxiety. To recognize the fact, you have the ability to choose how you respond to events and by doing so, begin to make changes on a neurological structural level, is imperative before you read on.
In the past, I would consciously try to battle anxiety by trying to resist it, although this would only make it stronger. Fighting these inner wars, would completely take me out of the present and frequently lead to embarrassing mistakes, or misinterpretations. (Multi-tasking has never been my strong suit) But rather than being in my own mind, all I needed to do was pay attention to what was going on around me.
These experiences weren’t pleasant, or effective. Now, armed with knowledge and coping mechanisms. I can win the fights with my anxiety whenever it shows its ugly face.
What helped me, you ask?
Firstly, by internalizing the understanding that anxiety is nourished by avoidance behavior. It’s useful for memory sake to liken anxiety to a mosquito bite, it feels so good to itch it at the moment, that bliss temporary relief flooding over you, but sooner or later that burning sensation you escaped for a moment will intensify, repeat this cycle enough times and you may even cause yourself an infection.
So, the aim is to stop the supply of nourishment to anxiety. Just do the thing, which is causing you anxiety, simple right…
In the words of Nietzsche “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” Is quite literally the philosophy I am advocating.
By performing the action which causes you to feel anxiety, you are weakening the neurological patterns which trigger anxiety, because your brain will learn no harm was followed. If on the other hand, you escape through avoidance behavior, you’re laying down more neurological pathways to reinforce the undesirable feelings of anxiety.
Comforting the thing which causes you anxiety can seem like a mammoth of a task, thinking about it may even give you the jitters, but don’t worry, there’s no rush. Having a willingness to eventually face the object is enough, and you should be proud that you are striving to overcome your anxiety.
Let’s not rush in blindly. One clinically approved approach to anxiety is constructing a hierarchy of tasks that progressively increase in difficulty. Gradually progressing your way through each task will build your emotional muscles and consequently decrease anxiety levels.
Prior to performing the task, you can even visualize yourself successfully performing the action item. This will give you an ever-greater chance of success as our subconscious is highly receptive to imagery.
(To keep the Nietzsche theme going)
“The man whom knows his why you can bear any what” — Nietzsche
Find a ‘why’, preferably, something larger than you. Is anxiety preventing you from achieving a dream? Who do you need to be strong for, a loved one? Find a purpose. Think bigger. How can you benefit society? What responsibility could you shoulder to help future generations?
Anxiety is closely related to having extremely high expectations and comparing yourself to others. By all means, it is important to have role models, dream big, and set ambitious goals. But, having unrealistic expectations will wreak havoc on your performance and halt your progress preventing you from achieving anything. Therefore, it is important to give our self permission to do things badly! Manage your perceptions and remember ‘Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly’.
Allowing yourself room to make mistakes will give you wings and may even turn anxiety into excitement. It’s interesting that both excitement and anxiety are extremely physiologically similar emotions. A shift in perception can alter the very emotion you are feeling. Make subtle changes at the thought level and anxiety can become an ally, energizing rather than demotivating you.
If for whatever reason you fail to complete the action or behavior and something goes wrong, it's ok. Don’t beat yourself up for it. Forgive yourself, we’re only human beings we mess up all the time. Learn from it, and let go of perfectionism. Perfect doesn’t exist.
To warm up to this concept, try sharing a mistake you made. See how good it feels?! It’s like a breath of fresh air. Stop trying to appear perfect and be kind to yourself. Do you expect the same of others? Imagine a friend who constantly pointed out what you were doing wrong.
Practice compassion for yourself. Mistakes will be made. That’s life.
As your confidence grows, anxiety evolves into a guiding compass telling you exactly what you must do. Imagine every anxious feeling is a message from your higher self trying to tell you something — ‘this is important for your growth’.
Be willing to be uncomfortable. Rather than tell yourself “I’m too anxious to do this,” accept the feeling and change the rules you tell yourself. For example, ‘I will sit with this until I don’t feel anxious.’ There is no leeway given for your brain to escape and ramp up the anxiety. You will sit through it regardless.
Accept anxiety for what it is and avoid superimposing moral judgments. Recognize that you will feel anxiety from time to time and that’s ok. It is serving its function. Anxiety is biologically programmed in us to protect us from harm. But when anxiety is inappropriate or impedes you from taking the action you want to take- simply, feel the anxiety, take a deep breath, and continue. When you consistently do things that scare you, you gain control over your life. The world opens up.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in the face of fear”. — Bruce Lee