There are plenty of reasons to feel anxious both on a global level, from pandemics and war, to personal reasons such major life changes and the pressures of relationships and daily life.
At its heart, anxiety is based on a fearful prediction of the future. Fear is programmed into humans as a survival mechanism so we know that it serves a useful function.
In a way we need anxiety – but the question is what about anxiety is purposeful and what about it is harmful?
Like any emotion, anxiety sends a signal both to ourselves and to others around us. What anxiety points to is a perceived risk. This is helpful as it alerts you to slow down and consider what you are doing.
Unfortunately, your perceptions of risk can be distorted in a number of ways. If you have had a bad experience in the past, for example, you might perceive a lot of risk where there is little. Or perhaps you have a tendency to catastrophize, assuming the worst will happen.
On the unhelpful side, anxiety can lead us to avoid the things we fear might have negative outcomes. This limits your life and often means spending a lot of time and energy figuring out ways of avoiding things.
Also on the unhelpful side, anxiety is harmful to our body and it decreases our quality of life significantly.
A healthy approach to anxiety takes into account both its helpful and unhelpful aspects.
First acknowledge what is causing the anxiety – what do you worry might happen? It’s really important to get to the heart of each specific cause of your anxiety. Only then can you begin to work with the perceived risk to see how legitimate it is.
The second step is to evaluate the actual risk of the event happening as well as consider anything you can do to lessen the risk.
As an example, imagine you are feeling anxious about ongoing conflict in a relationship. Upon reflection what you are worried about deep down is that your spouse is going to leave you. You might reflect that the risk of this happening is moderate to low, but you still worry that it might happen. The next question could be a game changer for this worry. What can you do to reduce the risk?
Let’s say you come up with some actions you can take to reduce the risk of your worry happening, but you are still feeling anxious. Or perhaps you determine that the risk is incredibly low and your worry is primarily based on past experiences, not the current reality, but you are still feeling anxious.
The third step is to work with anxiety directly. Since worries can be completely irrational we often can’t just talk them away. Anxiety involves thinking about the future – which in fact can never be solved through thinking since the future hasn’t happened yet.
The antidote to thinking about the future is to shift attention back to the present moment.
You can use the feeling of anxiety in the body as a helper.
Just notice or feel the symptoms of anxiety in the body, don’t try to change them.
Notice the heart rate, the short breath, the tight stomach. Feel the symptoms directly without thinking about them, without trying to change them.
It feels counter intuitive to go into discomfort with curiosity when our instinct is to try to change it or escape from it. But feeling directly with curiosity and an open mind into the physical sensations of anxiety in this moment turns out to be something you can handle.
30 seconds of doing this will allow the thoughts to drift into the background and soon the anxiety in the body will begin to calm. Allow a few longer, slower breaths to come as you just notice the breath happening for awhile longer.
You have just managed your anxiety and amazingly you no longer need to fear anxiety when you know you can manage it.
Finally, the fourth step is to replace the worry with a more realistic thought. It’s helpful to create a short and easy to remember replacement thought for each worry. After pausing to breath and feel into the body, recall your counterbalancing thought. In the relationship example above the worry was about the conflict ending with the other person leaving. A counterbalancing thought might be: “our relationship is resilient and conflicts can be resolved”.
The next time you feel anxious try these 4 steps:
acknowledge what is causing the anxiety – what do you worry might happen?
evaluate the actual risk of the event happening as well as consider anything you can do to lessen the risk.
work with anxiety by feeling it directly in the body in the present moment
replace the worry with a more realistic thought