Anxiety–this term is thrown about loosely as a “catch-all” descriptor for quite a few feelings: fear, apprehension, worry, panic, etc. As humans we demand a lot from our brains–to maintain bodily function, to make significant life decisions, to process information, to alert us to danger. Genetics, environment, and life’s circumstances (curve balls) combine to determine vulnerability to anxiety and/or contribute to activation of anxiety symptoms under pressure.
Is anxiety always a bad thing? Not always. As humans we must innately feel alarmed or alerted to potential risks in our environment–a complete lack of worry or fearfulness could be linked with a lack of awareness and as a result, lack of survival skills. An anxiety-prone individual has the added advantage of generally being sensitive, more empathetic, and in general more attuned to his or her own emotions. In athletic or academic performance an “ideal” or “optimum” level of anxiety can be key to peak performance, as the individual is alert and ready to take action.
Is anxiety damaging if I don’t do anything about it? Perhaps. It is commonly known that repeating a behavior will cause that behavior to eventually become a habit. For example, a person who starts a new routine of taking his vitamins with breakfast may over time adapt this ritual into a daily habit. Anxiety-prone individuals may develop the tendency to think automatic, detrimental thoughts (e.g. “I’m going to fail this test” even though the person studied). Also, a person with heightened anxiety or sensitivity may learn over time to react to potential triggers in a manner that is harmful to his or her ability to function optimally and/or enjoy relationships.
What is a technique for changing my anxious thoughts? Re-framing thoughts is a concept derived from a variety of therapy techniques (particularly from a treatment modality like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT). People prone to anxiety seem to struggle to see options outside of their automatic negative thoughts. In order to re-frame an automatic negative thought, try this re-framing technique:
- Instead of “I’m going to fail at_______” try “I’m having the thought that___________” [e.g. I didn’t prepare enough for this test and I could get a bad grade]”
“Anxiety” seems like a broad term–are there different categories or types? Anxiety can be categorized into a few more specific descriptions or faulty ways of thinking; one or a combination of the following may apply:
- Discounting or ignoring the positive: focusing primarily on the negative events or pieces of a situation, thoughts may crowd out the “light” or positive pieces of a circumstance.
- Black and white reasoning: rather than to see “gray area” or to simply view a situation as complicated, this anxiety-ridden reasoning style is “all or nothing”.
- Catastrophic thinking: everything is viewed as a disaster, even if it’s a controllable circumstance (e.g. car runs out of gas, becomes the end of the world rather than a fixable inconvenience).
- Perfectionist thinking: anxiety symptoms sometimes fuel the false belief (particularly for high achievers) that anything done less than perfect is not worth doing (e.g. “If I can’t get an A on my paper what’s the point?”)
- Emotional reactivity (or emotional reasoning): this subcategory is relevant when emotions tend to take over in the heat of the moment and an individual reacts in anger, sadness or by acting out–beliefs about a set of circumstances may lack reason or rationality.
Can my anxiety symptoms go away? Yes, over time and with intention, anxiety symptoms and worry can decrease. A goal in the context of therapy may be to reduce the impact of anxiety in an individual’s daily life. Another goal would be to develop coping skills to reduce the impact of situational anxiety or panic. A therapy client will work with the therapist to develop a set of “tools” unique to his or her needs to reduce the intensity, duration and frequency of anxiety symptoms.
Still have questions about anxiety or how therapy can help? Please feel free to contact me with questions or about how we can work together to manage your own anxiety and stress.
Willard, C. (n.d.). Mindfulness for teen anxiety: A workbook for overcoming anxiety at home, at school, and everywhere else.