3 things not to do when you experience anxiety
Most people experience anxiety from time to time. Especially when you have something major coming up in the future. For example, going to make a presentation, going to a social gathering or going for a job interview.
Anxiety is a completely normal emotional response. Unlike fear, which is our reaction to a real and current danger, anxiety is our response to an anticipated or unknown threat. Anxiety is our body’s alert system to a potential fear of something that could happen. Centuries ago, when there were more potential risks to our survival, having an alert system to potential threats could be an evolutionary advantage.
In today’s world, there are not many immediate threats, however, we still may retain an overreaction to this evolutionary fear response.
When can anxiety become a problem?
Anxiety becomes a problem when:
- it is exceptionally strong or lasts a long time
- we experience difficulty in functioning in daily life and things we enjoy
- we avoid situations that make us feel anxious
With anxiety, your brain has basically learned that certain things that are not really dangerous are a threat. You might learn this at any point in your life, often during childhood. For example, if you stood up in front of your class at school to make a presentation and other kids laughed at you, your brain might learn that there is danger involved in speaking in front of people. As a result, any time in the future when you need to make a presentation you might experience anxiety.
Being the ‘problem solving’ creatures that we are, we try to find ‘rational’ solutions. For example, avoiding doing presentations in the future and even making ‘logical’ sounding reasons for avoiding them. Like "I can always find a job where I don’t need to talk in front of other people." However, as a result, we often hold ourselves back from achieving a life of real value as a result of this way of thinking.
In fact, when we avoid situations we actually increase our anxiety. By avoiding, we are telling our brains that there really must be danger in that situation and, as a result, we reinforce the anxious response. This response grows stronger and can even generalise to other situations. So what started as anxiety about public speaking could develop into anxiety about speaking to anyone at any time.
How to manage anxiety
In order to effectively manage our anxiety, we need to teach our brains that there really is no danger in the situations that we might feel anxious about. And one of the most effective ways of doing that is to learn to sit with the anxious response in the situations that we may have been avoiding. It will feel uncomfortable, but there is no danger. It is all about teaching your brain that it has just made a mistake. Your brain thinks it has been trying to protect you, however, there is no danger.
This might make the process sound simple, however, in reality, it isn’t easy to do when you suffer with anxiety. That’s why it is usually a good idea to work with a counsellor or psychotherapist who can support you through the process.
Three important steps in helping this process of re-learning are:
- Do not avoid situations that make you feel anxious. As described above, avoiding situations actually reinforces anxiety.
- Do not try to reassure yourself, or have other people reassure you that you will be OK. This can sound counter-intuitive, however by saying to yourself "don’t worry, it will be OK", you are actually saying to your brain that there is a real threat and you need some sort of reassurance that you will survive.
- Do not try to relax in the anxiety-making situation. You need to learn to be able to sit with anxiety in order to retrain your brain’s response. By relaxing you are trying to avoid the feelings of anxiety. Again, you are telling your brain that there is a danger that you need to manage somehow. Only by allowing yourself to lean into the feelings will you really retrain your brain.
'Exposure and Response Prevention' and 'Acceptance and Commitment' Therapy are two effective approaches to help you learn to have a different way of relating to anxiety and in being able to live the life you want without being held back by anxiety.