Changing Your Relationship With Anxiety
The Stress Express
Anxiety can be perplexing. Sometimes anxiety helps out by motivating us to plan ahead and be thorough when arranging a trip or completing an assignment at work. Other times it can sabotage us with fear and keep us from asking for a raise or from going out to meet new people.
Most of the time we do whatever we can to avoid or lessen our anxiety. And why wouldn’t we? Anxiety isn’t a pleasant feeling. Nobody wakes up and thinks “I sure hope I experience anxiety today!” Some people experience relatively mild anxiety that doesn’t get in the way of them doing what’s important to them. For others, anxiety is a serious problem that calls for treatment. Most of us recognize that completely avoiding anxiety is impossible. It’s part of the human experience. Nevertheless, people will go to great lengths to try.
Just Ignore the Problem?
The ways people will try to reduce their anxiety range considerably. Some learn breathing techniques and relaxation skills. Others turn to powerful and often dangerous illicit drugs (Turner, Mota, Bolton, Sareen, 2018). Some take prescription drugs prescribed to them by a physician or more socially accepted substances such as alcohol or cannabis. Many avoid thinking about sources of anxiety whether intentionally or unconsciously.
To an extent, avoiding anxiety can be healthy. But sometimes the avoidance results in problems greater than the anxiety itself. This could look like a student who is anxious about an upcoming test and distracts themself from the stress by partying instead of studying. Or a person nearing the end of their life who is in denial of that fact refuses to discuss their last wishes with their children, leaving them to make hard choices on their own. Often, anxiety isn’t the problem but rather what we do in response to it.
Survival of the Most Anxious
So what’s the alternative to avoiding anxiety? First, let’s try to understand the purpose of anxiety better by looking back to the days of prehistoric humans. Anxiety is a warning system that humans evolved to keep us safe (Bateson, Brilot, & Nettle, 2011). The rustling of a bush might be a sign of a wild animal about to pounce. Humans who expected trouble were more likely to survive. Of course, a rustling bush doesn’t always mean danger. But a human who continued to be relaxed and at ease whenever they walked by a rustling bush probably didn’t live long enough to pass on those carefree genes. As a result, humans prone to expecting the worst survived to reproduce and pass on those anxious genes (Bateson, Brilot, & Nettle, 2011).
Our brains haven't changed very much since the days of early humans. One part of our brain that gets us ready to deal with danger (often referred to as the fight-or-flight response) is called the amygdala (Rauch, Shin & Wright, 2003). And since it is an old piece of equipment, it doesn’t know the difference between the danger of a salivating tiger and the danger of an upset spouse. Most of us don’t live in constant physical danger the way early humans did, so the amygdala doesn’t have to alert us to life threatening dangers very often. But we can’t just turn it off, so it continues doing its best to keep us safe from the modern day dangers of school projects, difficult conversations with partners, medical appointments, meeting new people, etc (Rauch, Shin & Wright, 2003).
Anxiety is a Toddler
One of the first steps we can take to change how we relate to our anxiety and how much it impacts us is to see it as a flawed source of information trying its best to be of help. I often encourage my clients to think of their thoughts as if they’re coming from an inner child. Children aren’t a reliable source of information but that doesn’t mean they should always be ignored. If a child you know runs up to you and starts telling you that they’re concerned about the aliens they saw outside their window last night, you may not take them very seriously. But if they tell you that there’s a fire in a nearby building and that they’re scared, you’d probably pay attention. Even in the first situation, you probably wouldn’t tell the child that they’re an idiot and to leave you alone. Chances are you’d be polite and listen even though you’re quite certain that the story is fiction. You might even offer the child a hug to comfort them and thank them for sharing with you. You can try doing the same by giving the anxious part of your brain a hug and thanking it for doing its best to help you. By recognizing that your thoughts and feelings are trying to keep you safe and that they have their limitations, you can start to hold onto them more loosely, seeing them as suggestions rather than absolute truths.
Welcome to the Anxiety Radio Show!
This idea of holding your thoughts loosely is discussed in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT encourages people to recognize that our automatic anxious thoughts come from a part of us that is constantly and automatically producing judgements, stories, etc. No matter how hard we try, we can’t turn it off for long (Harris, 2019). You can also think of it as a radio show that is always playing and trying to keep you up to date on all the latest news. If you become too absorbed in the show, you can find yourself believing everything it says. Even though we know that radio shows are a mix of helpful and unhelpful information.
Of course, we don’t have to give the radio our full attention. If you’re out with friends or focused on a project, you may not even notice the nearby radio until it starts playing your favorite song or an important piece of news. You can learn to keep your attention on what’s important to you: your friends, your work, your family, etc by letting the radio drone on in the background. Our thoughts don’t stop, but that doesn’t have to stop you from being present where it matters. And it’s much easier to stay present when you understand the purpose and limitations of those thoughts.
Written by Andrew Listvinsky, LCSW
Turner, S., Mota, N., Bolton, J., & Sareen, J. (2018). Self‐medication with alcohol or drugs for mood and anxiety disorders: A narrative review of the epidemiological literature. Depression and anxiety, 35(9), 851-860.
Bateson, M., Brilot, B., & Nettle, D. (2011). Anxiety: an evolutionary approach. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(12), 707-715.
Rauch, S. L., Shin, L. M., & Wright, C. I. (2003). Neuroimaging studies of amygdala function in anxiety disorders. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 985(1), 389-410.
Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.