Anxiety, Friend or Foe?

Anxiety. Many of us know the feeling. You begin to worry about some future event. Before long, you have butterflies in your chest and the muscles in your shoulders begin to tense up. You find yourself feeling irritable and restless, talking rapidly, feeling trapped.

But what is this thing called anxiety exactly? And why do we feel it? Well, to put it simply, anxiety is the brain’s way of warning us about the future. Without us even knowing it, our unconscious minds are constantly at work, scanning our environments, monitoring our behavior, and making predictions about the future. When our unconscious detects a harmful consequence on the horizon, that’s when our anxiety kicks in. It’s the brain’s way of saying “Hey you. Get ready. Bad things are about to happen.”

Much of the time this is a helpful thing. For example, a college student begins to worry about failing an upcoming exam. His anxiety kicks in, and he suddenly has this very unpleasant feeling that he wants to get rid of. So he gets out of bed, spends a few days in the library, passes the exam, and voilà, the anxiety subsides almost immediately.

More often than not, however, anxiety can be an extremely unhelpful experience. This is particularly true when our anxiety is based on a distorted view of the future. Maybe you are someone, for example, who at some point in your life decided that you have poor social skills. You’ve come to believe that all social gatherings will end in embarrassment and rejection, and so the very thought of having to socialize makes you anxious. You avoid social gatherings whenever possible and, when you are forced to socialize, your are so anxious that you can’t even be yourself even if you want to. Your anxiety is actually getting in the way of living.

Maybe you can relate to the example above. Or maybe you have chronic anxiety related to another issue. Now what? Well, the good news is that, if you have the time and motivation, anxiety problems can be improved. And you can start that work by asking yourself a few simple questions…

1) Are the consequences that my mind fears real or imagined? Do people even care if I am awkward in social situations?

2) Is the consequence as bad as I’ve convinced myself it will be? So what. Maybe some people will reject me for not being socially adept enough. But the people that are cool enough not to care will stick by my side. And at least I will know who out there accepts the real me.

3) Is there anything I can do to change the consequence anyway? Maybe there will always be some people who really like me, and some people who are indifferent to me. Worrying is never going to change that reality.

4) Do I need to change my environment? Maybe my environment really is full of superficial, critical, judgmental people. Maybe my partner is abusive, or my friends aren’t really my friends. My environment may be creating harsh negative consequences that are distorting my view of myself and the world.

5) Do I fully understand my past? What experiences have shaped my perspective? Am I still basing my current behavior on how I felt when I was a vulnerable child? Maybe it’s time to realize that I’m not in that place anymore. Maybe socializing doesn’t have to be as scary as it was back then.

6) Do I need to talk to someone? Figuring out why we’re anxious can be a confusing process. Finding someone you trust to talk to is sometimes the only way to get to the bottom of your feelings.