Editor's note: Our friend and guest from our Mental Health Minute series - Dr. Ryan Stoll, PhD - is the author of today's blog post. For more details on Ryan, you can check out his guest page at anthologiesofhope.com/guests/ryan-stoll.
We’ve ALL experienced anxiety at some point in our life. In fact, anxiety is a normal emotion - just like happiness, sadness, and anger – and in contrast to fear, anxiety is about the future. This feature of human experience evolved from the time when civilization consisted of hunter-gatherers living in incredibly dangerous environments that required some sort of mechanism to maximize our survivability. Evolved from when a time of hunter-gatherers, we carry anxiety with us to more readily tune into signals of potential danger in our surroundings. Anxiety brings us out of the present moment and into a future infinitely full of possible “what if scenarios”, helping us decide whether we need to fight, runaway and return, or avoid completely.
Similar to other normal emotions, anxiety exists along a spectrum. This spectrum makes it possible for anxiety to shift from normal to problematic. Sometimes anxiety is helpful or exists as a steady hum, noticeable but harmless. Other times, anxiety is like a dull pain, oscillating between annoyance and impactful. Other times still, anxiety can become more significant and chronic, disabling our ability to live fully, presently, and with confidence. This is the kind of anxiety can prevent us from doing the things we often want most - achieving goals, building relationships, facing fears, and honoring our story. It’s the kind of anxiety that doesn’t go away, keeping us in a persistent state of fight or flight and apprehension, eating away at our inner belief that we are capable of handling things that make us feel anxious, worried, or stressed. This is the kind of anxiety that, unless managed, often continues along the spectrum, shifting from “I feel anxious” to “I am anxious”.
Anxiety can affect our entire lived experience, manifesting itself in our thoughts, feelings, body, and behaviors. Often, when we experience moments or periods of high anxiety…
our attention is automatically and subconsciously biased to threat-related information in our environment, often leading us to perceive experiences and interactions as more negative than they actually are, even if those experiences are neutral or positive. As a result, when we experience a high degree of anxiety, we perceive the world, our self, and interactions as more negative than they actually are.
our thoughts shift from perceiving the anxiety-provoking experience (or trigger) to our internal, self-belief that we are incapable our handling it, leading to feelings of frustration, sadness, low self-confidence, etc.
our body may express anxiety or stress through physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, body aches, muscle tension, or excessive sweating, increase risk of more significant physical health problems overtime.
our perception of the relation between time and anxiety is skewed, expecting that the longer we are in experiences or interactions that make us feel anxious, the higher and higher our anxiety will continue to go, making us avoid that thing altogether. If we think something is going to make us feel miserable or uncomfortable, why would we bother doing it to begin with?
Unfortunately, because anxiety is a normal emotion, we can’t get rid of it nor can we “cure” it. We can however, using several scientifically derived and research-backed skills, effectively manage anxiety in the moment to prevent it from becoming worse or out-of-control in the future. In the scientific literature, what works to manage and prevent anxiety-related problems is largely less intense versions of what works to treat anxiety disorders; mostly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is considered one gold-standard approach to addressing anxiety based on large number of highly rigorous research studies, similar to how medications are tested. At its core, CBT focuses is about addressing the ways anxiety affects thoughts, emotions, body, and behaviors through the development of skills to improve emotion and body awareness, reduce body symptoms, manage worries, and develop our self-confidence. Based on this science, here are four things to try when your anxiety seems to be getting a bit out of hand:
Observe mindfully. We can’t change much without first understanding what can be changed. Notice and observe when you feel anxious or are experiencing a lot of worry. Initially, it’s not about labeling; instead simply notice that you are feeling something. Then observe and label what you might be feeling: are you angry? Sad? Feel Tired? Feel like running away? Muscle aches? Stomachache? From here, you can begin to identify what appears to be causing the anxiety or worry - the trigger, the thought, the task, the people, the sounds, the smells, etc. Self-awareness is the first step to effective anxiety management because it can enable us to see more clearly defined steps we can take to improve how we feel.
Seek stillness. In order to identify what you are feeling and thinking, as well as how to react to the thing causing you anxiety, take whatever time you have available – a minute, five minutes, an hour - to turn down the noise of the anxious mind. This could be using meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness apps, loud music, working out, etc. The medium doesn’t really matter here – it’s about doing whatever it is that enables you to become more centered in the present moment because anxiety thrives in future-oriented thinking.
You are not your thought. A major driver of anxiety is worry, in part, because there is a tendency for us to associate our thoughts with who we are. That is, just because we have a thought, doesn’t mean that thought: is accurate (remember the automatic bias), requires a response (either an action or continuing that line of thinking), or can’t be changed. Although it doesn’t always seem true, thoughts are malleable. When we observe what we are thinking, we create the opportunity to transform anxious thoughts into something that can either overcome the source of the anxiety or calm us down enough to come up with a problem-solving plan later on. Often time this is focused on looking for evidence (e.g., your own past experiences, other people’s experiences) that “disproves” the worry or negative self-statement.
Cultivate courage. Mark Twain wrote “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” From my own battles with anxiety and experience as a mental health scientist, I firmly believe this to be true. Just like we can feel sad and be happy simultaneously, we can feel anxious and be courageous at the same time. Being courageous is about recognizing, understanding, and acting as if regardless of what may happen, you do in fact have the ability to affect what does happen. This means that in order to cultivate courage, you have push yourself out of your comfort zone (in a safe and manageable way) and expose yourself to the things that you generally avoid because they make you feel anxious. It’s not about jumping straight to the thing that causes you the highest anxiety. Instead, it’s about identifying those situations or experiences that cause a moderate amount of anxiety; enough anxiety that it’s a bit uncomfortable, yet manageable. On a scale of 0 to 8, with 0 being no anxiety and 8 being the most anxiety ever, you’re looking to engage in things that are a 3, 4, or 5. The goal here is to help you realize that when excessive worry/anxiety presents itself, you can manage those reactions and that they are not as harmful, overwhelming, or permanent as previously anticipated.
Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, but it is individually unique in how and when it manifests, as well as how it can be most effectively overcome in that moment.
The above skills are general principles of anxiety management and prevention anxiety. Anxiety management is an important aspect of positive mental health, but sometimes overcoming anxiety needs a bit more “oompf”.
Anxiety can be a tough battle. Even as an anxiety researcher, I still have a difficult time managing my own anxiety. If you need additional support for your anxiety, know that it is there for you – from friends and family to individual therapy or group therapy to medication, etc.
Reference Link: Anxiety and Depression Association of America