21st March, 2011
People grapple with anxiety, try to shut it away, they may come to despise it, or surrender to it in miserable OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). But there is no need to fear the anxiety monster – make it your friend, and it will serve you well.
Anxiety is what separated your ancestors who lived from those who perished. It is the ability to predict danger in the future and take appropriate action. When your ancestors were walking through a forest, the anxious lion-obsessed relative who watched out for the sound of rustling leaves and took appropriate action lived another day. Your happy-go-lucky ancestor, who didn’t bother with such boring things, became lunch.
Anxiety is a healthy, positive survival mechanism that taps you on the shoulder and tells you to prepare yourself for danger, so that you can survive and prosper. However, among a certain percentage of the population, this life-enabling mechanism becomes life-destroying.
Many try to stop anxiety by getting angry at themselves, or the perceived cause. Others try to block it out, often making it worse. We’ve all heard the cliché of trying not to think about white monkeys for 5 minutes – and being able to think about nothing else.
Some therapies use imagery, catharsis, long term analysis and other exotic psychological approaches. I prefer the simple CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) route. There is nothing wrong with your anxiety, just the intensity.
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s father reminds him ‘Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied; And vice sometimes by action dignified’, medicine can be harmful or helpful depending on the dose. Its good to be anxious in a business meeting – that keeps you alert and makes sure you prepare properly – but if you’re paralysed with fear and covered in sweat, it won’t make a good impression.
We are separated from animals in our ability to imagine the future and plan for it. We do this by creating Worst Case Scenarios. Unfortunately these can get completely out of control. Anxious people become so obsessed with predicting terrible outcome, that their dire predictions become more real than reality its self.
The nervous business meeting attendee imagines others are laughing at him, judging him, putting him down. He creates a parallel universe of his own fears, in which he is the laughing stock of the company. This sends him into absolute panic, his body – believing he is in immediate danger – goes into Fight Or Flight mode, flooding his blood with adrenalin, increasing his heart rate, opening sweat glands and getting him ready to fight or run away. By the time its his turn to speak he’s a quivering wreck. Healthy anxiety that should make him alert has worked against him.
Next time you’re in a situation in which you are overly anxious, ask yourself a few questions. Do I really need to be this anxious? Is this level and intensity of anxiety reasonable or helpful? Is this situation actually as dangerous as I think? Am I creating exaggerated and unrealistic Worst Case Scenarios and believing them?
In order for you to feel high anxiety, you must believe yourself to be in grave danger. There are times when this is true - in which case, worry is appropriate. It may be true that the poor anxious chap in the business meeting is actually being laughed at, perhaps his boss is a bully. In this case anxiety is perfectly reasonable and its time for him to look for a new job. But in 99.9% of cases, the high anxiety is unreasonable, unhelpful and requires turning down.
Dealing with extreme anxiety is simple, once you get the hang of it. First, catch yourself in the act of indulging in extreme, unreasonable anxiety. This is generally a difficult trick to learn, as the very nature of extreme-anxiety causes you to be hysterical and unreasonable. Secondly, learn to step back from the anxiety and challenge it, asking yourself if this anxiety is appropriate for the situation or perceived threat. Thirdly, learn some new ways of dealing with this anxiety that are positive and helpful.
The insecure chap may learn assertiveness or public speaking skills. He may use CBT techniques to identify and challenge irrational thinking. He may do a little relaxation exercise 20 minutes before the meeting, or simply call his wife for a brief chat to calm his nerves. Each of these alternative behaviours prevents him from falling into Worst Case Scenario thinking, keeps him calm and avoids hysteria.
At my CBT Therapy Practice, I help the overly-anxious to overcome unhelpful anxiety by learning how it anxiety works, then taking appropriate action to moderate it. Clients learn not to stop anxiety, or argue with it – but simply to bring it down to a healthy level, i.e. to make it their friend.
Once you learn this technique, anxiety will work for - not against you. It will be your guardian, your warning system and will give you a friendly tap on the shoulder you when you need to prepare for stressful situations. Now your survival mechanism is working correctly and helping you to succeed.
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