Do You Let Anxiety Torture You Or Protect You?
Nearly everyone believes they know what anxiety is. However, when asked to explain what anxiety is, they may be able to describe what it feels like, but not what it actually is. People are equally unlikely to understand what anxiety’s purpose in our life is.
Allow me to assure you, anxiety is easily understandable, and it does have a purpose. Knowing what anxiety is and understanding the purpose of anxiety will allow you to take advantage of its signals.
Coupled with the misunderstanding of anxiety’s role is the tendency of most people to lump anxiety into one of two categories. That is, anxiety is either good, or it’s bad. But, I think it’s wiser to think of it along the continuum of helpful versus not helpful. Later, I’ll explain a couple of determinants that will help you keep from drifting into the unhelpful territories of anxiety.
Additionally, we’ll explore more closely how understanding what comprises unhelpful anxiety can be a fabulous first step in reducing it, and empowering yourself to grow beyond it.
Finally, our culture has started treating anxiety like it’s something that should be avoided like COVID-19. That’s actually a counterproductive strategy and simply digs a deeper hole for someone to climb out of on their path to emotional wellness.
Armed with this knowledge you can begin making more informed and empowering choices about your emotional life. Let’s dig in.
GOOD, BAD, OR INDIFFERENT?
According to the website Anxiety.org, anxiety is a reaction to situations perceived as (emphasis mine) stressful or dangerous. Thus, anxiety has two important components to it: your perception of a situation, and your reaction to it.
Anxiety has no qualitative value in and of itself. It’s just a reaction. Anxiety is neither good nor bad.
As with most things in this world, anxiety is nuanced and expressed in shades of grey. It would be more useful for you to think of anxiety as existing on a helpfulness or usefulness scale. In other words you, you can think of anxiety as more or less useful depending on your situation.
Whether you suffer from generalized anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD or panic attacks, you’ll find it more valuable to stop categorizing your anxiety as bad, and the research supports this.
These reactions bubble up out of a complex interaction between your emotional brain and your rational brain. Sometimes, in the face of real danger, your anxiety preps your body to either fight or flee. But at other times, and these times are far more frequent, anxiety is a signal that something big is up for you. Some of those things could be qualifying exams, an important speech, or a networking event.
In each of these situations, you have a desire to perform well, be well received, or make an impact and the anxiety that surfaces inspires you to prepare to perform well.
When viewed from these perspectives, needing to escape real danger and needing to perform well, you’d have to say that anxiety could be one of your best friends. When the proverbial chips are down, your body has developed an early warning system that helps you be the best you can be.
But there are other times when anxiety dips significantly into the UN-helpful zone. Unless you are able to distinguish when your anxiety is becoming less useful or less helpful, you will fall victim to the symptoms of disordered anxiety.
Let’s turn our attention to disordered anxiety next.
DISORDERED ANXIETY IS THE PROBLEM
When you read the terms anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, you’re seeing the distinction between anxiety that is helpful to you and anxiety that is not helpful.
As you’ve seen, having some anxiety in your life should be expected, and in some cases is very helpful. But how do you distinguish when your anxiety has crossed into the not helpful zone? There are two criteria you can use to evaluate your situation.
Your anxiety has become disordered when:
- You feel like you’re in danger when you’re actually safe.
- Your anxiety interferes with your ability to function, i.e., when the anxiety or the avoidance of anxiety interferes with your life.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Imagine that you’re struggling to get out of the house because you’re afraid you’re going to contract an awful disease. You reason that everything you come in contact with outside your front door is teeming with germs and bacteria, whether that’s other people or objects in the environment. Therefore, you must be in significant danger.
In this case you can see that two of the criteria are being met.
First, are you really in danger? Well, if it really is as dangerous as you think, how are all the other humans surviving? If the other humans are surviving, perhaps leaving the house doesn’t present the danger you think it does.
Second, your anxiety about the perceived danger is interfering with your ability to function. If you can’t leave the house, you will be unable to perform the activities you need to perform to thrive as a human being.
Here’s another example.
COVID-19 notwithstanding, air travel is recognized as the safest mode of travel available. It’s safer than driving a car, riding a bus or traveling by train. It’s probably even safer than riding a horse.
Starting back in the 1970’s, the airline industry embarked on a safety program that has driven down safety related problems so low that they are models for what can be achieved in safety. They’re referred to as a high-reliability industry, and organizations everywhere are adapting their methods to create safer environments for their people.
So, for the person who is unwilling to fly, it’s evident that they believe they’re in danger, when in actuality, they’re probably in the safest place they can be.
In the first case, the perception of danger is inaccurate and it’s interfering with her life. In the second case, it might not be interfering with her life, but it certainly is an inaccurate assessment of the danger posed.
That said, what the people in our examples are doing is avoiding situations because of their perception of danger. And in doing so, they will unwittingly inflate their anxiety levels for those situations as each new situation occurs.
And that leads us to the problems caused by avoidance.
AVOIDING WHAT MAKES YOU ANXIOUS MAKES YOU MORE ANXIOUS
There’s a term I love to use when discussing behaviors. That term is rehearsal.
Oxford Languages defines rehearsal as a practice or trial performance of a play or other work for later public performance. One of the primary objectives of rehearsal is getting better at, even perfecting, the work for later performance.
So here is how your avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations is perfecting your anxious reactions.
Think back to a time when you had a sudden, startling scare. Your body probably tensed up. It probably took your breath away. You may have leapt out of your skin. You may have shrieked or screamed.
But when the danger passed and you realized that you were safe, you felt a rush of relief and that left you feeling better. In some cases, upon realizing that you dodged a bullet so to speak, you might have even laughed out loud.
Well, there’s a portion of your brain that records your strong emotional responses to anxiety-provoking situations, and stores those responses for future reference. It records your strong pleasure responses. It records your strong fear responses. Then, when a similar situation comes up in the future, this region knows exactly which reaction sequence to run.
So how does this work with your anxiety responses?
Let’s say you have to attend a networking event where you have to meet and mingle with a bunch of strangers (open-kimono-moment…this is a particularly tough one for me. Just sayin’…).
As you approach the door to the venue, your anxiety starts building. Palms get sweaty. Heart rate rises. Mouth gets a little dry. And then you stop before you reach the door. You think better of the situation, find a reasonable justification for NOT attending the event, turn tail and head back to your car.
As you walk away, you feel relief from the anxiety symptoms which were building only moments before, and that region of the brain which records your strong emotional responses says, “Oh I get it! Avoiding that situation felt so much better than actually going through with it. Well, now I know how to respond in the future.”
And, it bumps the amplitude of the response each new time this pattern plays out just to make sure you stay safe.
You have now rehearsed a response pattern that your brain believes you want to play out in later performances. And every time you rehearse that response pattern, you perfect that response. And the cycle builds on itself:
- You encounter an anxiety provoking situation.
- Rather than dealing with your discomfort, you choose to avoid the situation.
- As you walk away from the anxiety-provoking situation, your brain sends a rush of feel-good chemicals through your body.
- You heave a deep sigh of relief, and your emotional brain records the pleasure reaction for future reference, adding a touch extra fear sensation…just to keep you safe.
- The next time you encounter a similar anxiety provoking situation, your emotional brain runs the updated reaction pattern, including the extra touch of negative emotion.
- If you choose to avoid the situation again, you get the rush of relief, and your emotional brain records the freshly updated pleasure reaction.
- Noting that the extra fear sensation “helped”, your emotional brain adds an additional dose of fear…just to keep you safe.
- And on, and on, and on…
You’re rehearsing avoidance. You’re training yourself, however unknowingly, to be more and more afraid. That which we practice, we perfect. Even if what we’re perfecting is a mistake.
So, what is there to do about this?
DISTINGUISH HELPFUL VERSUS UNHELPFUL ANXIETY
You now have two very reliable criteria to help you evaluate the anxiety you’re experiencing.
- Are you in danger or are you actually safe?
- Is your anxiety, or your avoidance of anxiety, interfering with your ability to function?
With these criteria you can then determine if the anxiety you’re experiencing is more or less helpful.
So if you’ve got an important presentation to make, and you get butterflies in your stomach, or your breath gets a little short, you could reliably say that you weren’t in danger. In this case your anxiety was probably your body inspiring you to focus and be your best.
Alternatively, never speaking up in a meeting or during class because you’re afraid others might think your ideas stink could easily be classified as not very helpful.
- While it’s true that they might think your ideas stink, it’s also possible they might think your ideas are excellent. So, are you experiencing real danger or are you actually safe?
- Is your avoidance of the anxious feelings interfering with your goals and your life?
So…here’s a quick story to illustrate.
My bride and I are cut from very similar cloth, emotionally. We’re more or less introverted, and drag a big, bag of neuroses around with us wherever we go. No need to go into the details of the neuroses, except that chief among them is a fear of being seen as inadequate or unworthy of notice.
I’m going to say that we’d been married about three years when we headed off to a networking event together. I couldn’t tell you why we were going to this, I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night.
Anyway, as we approached the door to the networking event venue, I paused, took a very deep, cleansing breath, and, shaking my head, said to her, “Dear god, I hate these things.”
Her jaw hit the ground, and she looked at me, eyes bugging out of her little skull, in utter disbelief. You could have knocked her over with a feather.
“WHAT? Wait a minute. I don’t get this. I learned how to do this from watching you. You’re really good at meeting new people,” she said.
“Yeah? Well, maybe…but it causes me no end of anguish,” I announced.
I went on to explain that I’d been forced to develop those people skills because of work I’d been doing a few years before we met. And while it was true that I had gotten pretty good at those skills, I ALWAYS experienced what felt like overwhelming apprehension when I had to do it.
The only difference was that I’d just learned over time that even though meeting new people did roil my guts and make me feel like a buffoon, I always survived in the end. In addition, I usually walked away with nice new friendships. Not all the time, but enough of the time.
So, allowing my fear of judgment to get in the way of things I needed to do was totally unhelpful. Believe me, I was not enlightened enough at the time to have explained it this way. But, I did learn that not all fear is created equal. And there’s no earthly reason why you can’t take advantage of this lesson. The research on this is crystal clear.
Distinguishing helpful versus unhelpful anxiety can reduce the level and frequency of the anxiety which is holding you back. It will put you back in the driver’s seat of your life and help you build your sense of confidence and personal empowerment.
Are Toxic, Unhelpful Thoughts Suffocating You?
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