What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a energised response to an anticipated stressful situation, imagined or real. It consists of repetitive thinking processes such as excessive worrying, rumination, dysfunctional threat monitoring and dysfunctional cognitive and behavioural copying and is at the core of depressive and anxiety disorders. We may associate the future situation with uncomfortable core emotions such as failure, shame, rejection or fear. The anticipation of these core emotions can cause us to worry, to become nervous and agitated about the upcoming event. We become anxious about the situation and experiencing or re-experiencing these challenging core emotions. We might anticipate shame about an upcoming performance, due to past unpleasant experiences or it may be fear of the unknown. In response our breathing becomes shallow and we begin to have feelings of panic, nausea, trembling, sweating or heart palpitations. These anxious feelings may begin to overwhelm us and together with negative self-talk from getting “stuck in our head” we can find ourselves in a very debilitating place.
Anxiety is normal
What is anxiety? It is our bodies way of telling us to be attentive, to focus our attention, to be ready to respond. It is a survival mechanism that we have inherited from our ancestors to keep us alert and vigilant to our surroundings. When we anticipate a stressful situation our body responds by quietening breathing and freezing movement so as to more aware of external stimulus. We prepare our body to respond, to be ready to fight or flee. Once we become aware of the need to take flight or fight, our movement is stimulated, we breathe to oxygenate the body, adrenaline kicks in and we respond.
The problem in our modern age is that we are overwhelmed by stress. There are many situations where we experience stress. Financial stress, relationship stress, job stress, thoughts about life and/or death etc. Together with these multiple stressful situations we have developed maladaptive emotional reactions to these stressful situations, fear of rejection, of loss or shame and other problematic emotions.
So rather than moving from attentive awareness of the dangerous situation and subsequent immediate response, we remain stuck in the feelings of anxiety, of shallow breathing, bodily paralysis, panic etc. We don’t know how to respond, to deal with the stress and the emotions that arise.
Anxiety becomes a disorder or unnatural when our response to a given situation is excessive. That is instead of responding with the appropriate amount of energy we tend to over-compensate and worry excessively. The reaction is out of alignment to the given situation. This problem can be compounded as we become more and more anxious about other life situations. It is at this stage that treatment is a necessity.
Anxiety can be managed. You can learn new behavioral responses to situations that cause anxiety. Although you may still experience anxiety you can learn how to manage it better and to deal with the underlying emotions that cause it. You can also learn how to manage excessive anxiety, to bring it back to a more normal response. The main problem is that we tend to push our feelings and our subsequent aside, we fight with them rather than let them be.
Anxiety vs excitement
Feelings of anxiety result as a prolonged reaction to an future stressful event. It is a state in which we have become frozen, no longer responding to the imagined or real stressful external stimuli. We are in a reactive energised but shutdown state.
When we breathe our body awareness becomes engaged, we become stimulated, energised, responsive. Excitement is our bodies way of responding to an event requiring action. We move into a fight or flight response. Excitement is the healthier response to anticipated stressful situations. Rather than freezing, panicking, becoming worried and nervous we can learn to respond with excitement when feelings of anxiety emerge.
The transformation of anxiety into excitement is a necessary response. It mimics our flight or flight mechanism, we become energised into movement to face the anticipated stressful situation, whether it be positive or negative. Becoming excited allows us to engage more healthily with imagined or real stress. We give ourselves a better chance of survival and a better way of dealing with the core emotions arising from these stressful situations.
The same goes for managing anxiety in the modern era. We need to find a way to work with our anxiety, to allow it to transform into a responsive energetic state, to transform it into excitement. By doing so we become better equipped to handle both the situation and the corresponding emotions that arise. By becoming energised and not shut down with feelings of anxiety we give ourselves the capacity to see how we can change the situation to better support us and to deal with problematic emotions that may arise.
A 3-pronged approach
Managing anxiety is situational. That is, anxiety occurs as a result of anticipating a stressful situation and related difficult emotions. By transforming anxiety into a more active energised state, ie excitement, we become better equipped to deal with the situation and corresponding emotions. The process becomes a 3-pronged approach:
- we learn to manage and transform our anxiety
- we become empowered to alter the situation
- we can deal with problem emotions
One – Transforming anxiety
Dealing with stress and associated difficult emotions can be a long-term process. We need to unlearn old patterns and to learn new better ones. In the first instance we need to learn how to manage anxiety, to transform it and give us the opportunity to delve deeper into the more core problem emotions that arise out of these stress inducing situations.
How do we manage anxiety, how do we transform it into an active energised state?
- By becoming present-centred and not resisting feelings. By allowing bodily sensations to arise naturally and to not resist the feelings that come up, they come up and they go
- By engaging in mindful awareness of these feelings and sensations, allowing them to happen, to experience them fully
- By using our breath. Our breath quickens in response to stressful situations and can become shallow and unsupportive if we lose awareness of it. By becoming aware of our breathing and deepening it we will allow feelings of excitement to arise.
What else can we do?
- Learn to manage stress better in your life, know when enough is enough and to balance life’s demands.
- Take good care of yourself with exercise and healthy eating.
- Catch your thoughts, replace negative self talk with self-supporting talk. When you tell yourself something is ‘difficult’ or ‘unfair’, it becomes more stressful to deal with than if you tell yourself it’s a ‘challenge’, or even a ‘test’.
Two – Changing the situation
By taking the whole situation into account we can look at ways to alter it so as to get more support. For example, when faced with an upcoming talk that’s causing us anxiety, we can transform the anxious feelings and thoughts into more positive responses. In doing so we become more proactive and see how the situation might be affected to support us better. We might make sure the lighting is suitable, the position on stage more comfortable, we might seek support from others on the night to assist us.
It comes down to being in a better place, a more creative place, to look at the situation more objectively and to change it to better suit and support us. We are better equipped to do this if our thoughts and feelings are clear and more positive.
Three – Dealing with problem emotions
Les Greenberg, the founder of Emotion Focused Therapy says the reviving the capacity to feel adaptive anger and sadness and the ability to feel compassion for the self and self-soothe are key affective elements to overcoming depression and anxiety and the powerlessness and insecurity of these disorders. By reviving more adaptive positive emotion we transform the maladaptive negative emotions.
By empowering ourselves to better meet a stressful situation we can find better ways of dealing with problem emotions that may arise. Instead of shame we might instead feel anger and get in touch with a sense of injustice at past hurts. By reviving healthier more adaptive emotions we allow healing to take place. In this healing we adapt and create more healthier behaviors, responses and feelings. The situations that caused us so much negative emotion and stress become less anxiety inducing and over time we learn to meet other stressful situations in new healthier ways.
[box type=”bio”] Anxiety can be exhausting and overwhelming. Get support from family and friends and see a therapist. They can support you to change the way you deal with stressful situations and to support you to develop better skills to manage anxiety.[/box]