10 Things You Should Know About AnxietyOct 31, 2022
Anxiety is a pretty universal experience, and problematic anxiety is the most common mental health concern. It also happens to be the thing I've specialized in for nearly 20 years now. In honor of Halloween, a holiday dedicated to scary things, I'd like to share my Top 10 Things You Need to Know About Anxiety list. Here goes.
1. Everyone has anxiety. EVERYONE.
Show me someone who says they never feel anxious, and I'll show you a liar. We all have anxiety. It's part of our biological wiring. And not just ours. All animals have anxiety, and it serves a very important purpose.
2. Anxiety is not bad. It's actually quite helpful.
At certain times and to a point. When it's working the way it's supposed to, anxiety is our body's built in warning system. Its entire job is to detect potential dangers, alert us to threats, and keep us safe. We would literally die without it. It's our protector.
3. There's a difference between normative (natural) and disordered (problematic) anxiety.
As we've established, we're supposed to feel fear or anxiety at certain times - when we're in danger or our brain detects potential threats. That's normal and natural. Sometimes, though, too much of a good thing isn't so good. When you experience anxiety in the absence of a credible threat, when the level of anxiety exceeds the threat (when your brain treats a metaphorical paper cut like a nuclear disaster), when the anxiety persists despite assurances that you're ok, and/or when anxiety interferes with your functioning or quality of life, you might be crossing into anxiety disorder territory. It's worth learning everything you can about anxiety and how to reign it in. Life will feel so much better!
4. Anxiety comes in different flavors, but it's all kind of the same thing.
There are different anxiety disorders or types of anxiety, but they have more in common than not. Think of it like ice cream. There's chocolate and vanilla and chunky monkey, but it's all still ice cream.
5. Anxiety doesn't live in the here and now.
If there is a clear and present threat - one that can actually cause bodily harm or death - then what you're feeling is true fear. Heed its warning. Keep in mind, though, that no one has ever died from embarrassment. That's not a real threat. Neither are sprickets (the evil incarnate cross between a spider and a cricket that likes to get into my basement), contrary to what my anxiety system says, or the million other things that anxiety likes to harp on.
Back on track. Anxiety does not live in the here and now. Anxiety is almost always about what's coming in the future, maybe in 1 second, 1 minute, a day, 3 months from now, or at some indistinct point in the future.
Or it's focused on the past, the thing you said or did or that thing that happened...in the past.
Think about it. When you are feeling stressed, worried, embarrassed, anxious, apprehensive, or some other variant of uncomfortable, is it based on what is going on RIGHT NOW in THIS moment? 100 bucks says no. Your mind is time traveling to the future or the past, anticipating potential bad things. The antidote? Mindfulness. Be present now.
6. We can't - and shouldn't want - to get rid of it.
It's natural to want to get rid of anxiety. In fact, that's the way Nature designed it - to be super unpleasant so we're highly motivated to get rid of it by escaping or avoiding danger and, as a result, staying alive. Because it's integral for our survival, though, we need it. We'd truly be at a disadvantage without it. Besides, there is zero way to get rid of it. We can go a long way in reducing it, but we can't erase it completely. It's just not biologically possible, which is ok because...
7. Anxiety can't hurt you.
Anxiety is uncomfortable, not dangerous. It won't hurt you to feel anxious, even really intense levels of anxiety like panic. It's physically impossible to get too anxious. Your body is equipped to handle it, and you can learn to handle it, too. This is especially important for all you parents out there. Know that it is not harmful for you or your child to experience anxiety. This ties in with the next point.
8. Avoidance makes it worse.
The more you avoid the things that cause you anxiety, the more anxiety you will have. It's like an itchy mosquito bite. The more you scratch you it, the more it itches. The more you avoid, the more anxiety you will have.
9. Facing fears is the best way to combat anxiety.
There are a lot of effective coping strategies, tools you can use when you're feeling anxious to help you navigate the moment. These tools fall into a few camps: mindfulness (paying attention to the present), helpful thinking (using logic to help you challenge or argue worries, rational thinking, using coping thoughts or positive self-talk to be a good coach for yourself), and relaxation (activating your parasympathetic nervous system - the chill out and relax system - to help shut off the fight-or-flight anxiety system). The most effective strategy for dealing with anxiety, though, is something psychologists call exposure. This really means facing a fear.
When you face a realistically safe but anxiety-provoking situation or trigger (remember, no one has died of embarrassment or because they got fired. Those are uncomfortable but realistically safe, people.), you teach your brain that danger signals are unnecessary.
This is an actions speak louder than words kind of situation here. You can try to tell yourself all day long not to be afraid of those sprickets, that they can't hurt you, but the part of your brain that is most responsible for anxiety, the amygdala, doesn't speak English. Your words will fall on deaf ears, so to speak. You have to take your amygdala into the scary situation, stay put, and show it that you're not leaving because it's not really dangerous. That's how you teach your brain to stop sounding the alarms in that situation.
The only way out is through.
10. It won't last forever.
Contrary to what you might think, you won't actually stay anxious forever in the face of a trigger. It's kind of like gravity. What goes up, must come down. If you're brave enough to face something anxiety-provoking, without trying to avoid or escape, one of two things will happen. You'll eventually habituate (get used to it). Like jumping into a cold swimming pool, if you stay in the water long enough, you acclimate, and it doesn't feel as cold.
If you don't habituate in the moment, just know that over time, it'll get easier. You'll learn that you can, in fact, handle hard, anxiety-provoking things. And when you learn that, you'll feel strong, confident in yourself, and anxiety will no longer dominate your life and call all the shots.
One final point I'd like to make. Being brave doesn't mean not being afraid. It means being afraid and doing it anyways. To be brave, to have courage, you must, by definition, have fear. They go hand-in-hand. So muster up your courage and face your fears. You've got this!
Be brave this year! Happy Halloween!
"Anxiety is a lot like a toddler. It never stops talking, tells you you're wrong about everything, and wakes you up at 3 am."
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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