Anxiety is a completely normal physical response to protect ourself against a threat.
It’s not ‘crazy’, ‘bitchy’, or controlling, and it is not a weakness to worry. There is a primitive part of the brain that’s geared toward driving our attention to threats. When it does, the body surges with cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenalin (the energy hormone), which prepares us to run for our life or fight for it. This fight or flight response is part of being human. However in some people (those with anxiety), the ‘on’ button is a bit more sensitive.
Anxiety is like a warning bell. Unfortunately for those with anxiety, it often goes off when there is no real danger. When this happens, mental health professionals call this experience irrational fear.
When we worry about an event, we focus on an imaginary threat that is not happening in reality. Think of this reaction as akin to hiding in a cave. We can’t live in there forever, but it is safe. It is a place of protection from the real or imagined threat outside. A cave allows us to periodically peer out, assess the situation and respond to perceived potential threats. These threats have nothing to do with reality, but the emotions and reactions are real.
Underlying these anxious, obessessive thoughts is the desire to predict the future. We are trying to solve a problem in the present, to prevent disaster in the future. We are trying to come up with a plan to feel secure about some concern that may or may not happen. In the meantime, our life is on hold until we find an acceptable solution to this potential problem.
In an ambiguous or unpredictable situation, our brain is going to look for clues in the environment, things it knows from past experience are associated with threat or safety. If this is unsuccessful, and the brain can’t tell what is dangerous and what isn’t, then anything could seem like a threat. Threat and safety detection have been linked to the amygdala, and emotion regulation seems to be the domain of the prefrontal cortex.
Because of our biological need to stay safe and to prepare against the next threat, anxiety is useful by compelling us to have a plan. We are driven to make sure everything is under our control to keep everyone safe, happy, and out of trouble. We feel prepared and secure by making sure everyone has what they need.
Often times, people with anxiety can recognize when their thoughts are irrationally pessimistic and scary, but at the same time, they may not be able to pull themselves out of this vertigo; “something terrible is going to happen, we don’t know what, where or when, we can’t prevent it, but we know that it’s going to be awful when it hits.”
All humans have some sort of irrational fears. These fears can be reduced to four stages. First, we mull a concern over and over instead of doing something about it. Next, we pile more and more worries on top of the ones we started with. Third, we experience physical symptoms of anxiety when there is no real physical danger. Finally, the symptoms paralyze us.
When irrational fear shows up as anxiety, we keep mulling it over and analyzing it, without doing anything constructive. Yet, we may have little evidence that our pessimistic prophecy will ever actually occur. Irrational fear can also show up in a more extreme fashion: such as a feeling of dread the directed toward a specific object or situation. In such cases, the worry is well out of proportion with the actual theat.
Most of the things that we have anxiety about have to do with events or situations over which we have no control. We worry about war, the economy, the possibility of coming down with some illness, or losing our job. We worry about whether or not someone likes us, about how our family members are doing, about our weight, whether or not we will get a divorce, about getting old and even dying.
We worry because we care. It’s hard to care. It’s so much easier not to care. When we care, we can be hurt, disappointed, or saddened. But we only feel these things because we care about them. Without emotion, we have difficulty placing value on people, places, events, experiences and things. It is the emotional context that makes a thing important or incidental. But worrying about those things, won’t positively change them or prepare us in any way. We have no control over most of those things because they are not happening.
To add another arrow into the mix, despite a general human preference for certainty, the unknown isn’t always anxiety-inducing. Uncertainty has its upside, especially regarding temporary unknowns. There are circumstances under which uncertainty can be exciting and motivating, rather than worrisome.
We don’t want to know the endings of all the books we’re going to read, all the movies we’ll ever watch, or the contents of all our future presents. Researchers have found that people feel more excited and work harder during tasks where the size of the reward is uncertain.
If the suspense of not-knowing is too much for us, we typically use one of two strategies: approach or avoid. If avoidance is taken to far, it could manifest in something like turning down a promotion at work because we aren’t sure what the new job will be like and we know we can do the job we have now. So avoiding unpredictable situations might rob people of opportunities to disprove their own worries.
When we get invited go out, we may think, ‘I could be embarrassed, people might look at me.’ However, if we actually went out, we might discover that our worry to be unfounded, and our anxiety could be reduced.
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