If you experience regular episodes of exaggerated anxiety, you will likely experience uncomfortable consequences; such as, feeling tired very easily, have difficulty concentrating, experience sleep issues, restlessness, constantly feeling overwhelmed, even easy tasks seem laborious, and eventually can lead to feeling depressed and demoralized. Unfortunately, many people wait until their anxiety has either caused deterioration in one’s quality of life (e.g. work problems, relationship issues, avoidance, etc.) and/or when they realize they want to have a more meaningful and purposeful life but have been significantly hindered by their anxiety. One commonality that I notice when working with people struggling with anxiety is that many of them have developed a pretty nasty perception of anxiety. If people wait until they feel demoralized, they often say something to the effect of “I just want my anxiety to go away. I don’t want it at all anymore. I hate my anxiety. I just want total comfort”.
Reshaping Your Perspective on Anxiety
In order to overcome the excessive and unnecessary intensity of anxiety that you experience, you first must understand that anxiety is not the issue. The intensity of the anxiety is the issue.
I ask client’s what they think that motivates them to make sure their children are buckled into their seat belts. What is it that stops someone from just getting in their car and putting the accelerator to the floor and just run everyone off the road? Why is it that we stop at red lights (most of the time anyways)? What is it that makes us study for a test or prepare for a meeting instead of going in unprepared and careless? What is it that motivates a police officer to put their bullet proof vest on when going on a call to a potentially dangerous situation? What is it that motivates us to teach our children not to talk to strangers? What is it that reminds us to put a parachute on before we go skydiving? The answer is: anxiety.
The following list is just a few examples of what we would do if we had zero anxiety:
- Parents would let their kids go and run with steak knives in their hands.
- We would walk down dark alleys
- We would tell our kids they can go talk to as many strangers as they can find. If one offers you a puppy, GREAT! Nothing can go wrong there.
- We would do drugs and put no limits on ourselves
- We would literally not get out of bed in the morning because there would be no sense of urgency to do anything.
But we don’t do that because our anxiety makes sure that we protect our children and ourselves from danger. We also must ensure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far the other way where we fall back into being overprotective and engage in irrational catastrophic thinking where you approach life planning for the worse possible scenario for everything you do. In the following section, I’ll explain using an experience we had when updating our alarm system when we moved into our house.
The Home Alarm Analogy
When my family moved into our current home, the alarm system equipment needed updated. When the alarm company came and updated the alarm, they ended up setting the alarm sensitivity too high. The alarm would go off when we were sleeping. It would go off when the dog would bark. It went off when we were at dinner. It went off when our daughter dropped a plate. So, the alarm was working but it was going off when there was no real danger. That is essentially what happens when someone experiences an elevated intensity of anxiety that is out of proportion with the actual circumstances. We called the alarm company and they came out and tweaked the sensitivity of the alarm. Notice, I didn’t tell the alarm technician that we didn’t want the alarm to go off anymore. We still want the alarm to alert us when there is real danger (e.g. burglar breaking in) so we can take the necessary steps to protect ourselves. So, in effect, a counselor plays the role of the alarm technician who can help you adjust your internal alarm system, so it works in the most effective and efficient way possible.
What’s The Point?
When you are afraid of your anxiety and you choose to either avoid it at all costs or run away from it when you start to feel discomfort, you are essentially treating anxiety like you would treat a bully. It would be like believing that someone has been wanting to bully you and was going to constantly threaten to bully you for the rest of your life but instead you find out that they have had your back this whole time and are the reason why nothing terrible has happened to you. You then realize how terrible things would be if your anxiety wasn’t there to keep you safe. Bottom line, the objective is not to eliminate our uncomfortable emotions. What will enable you to have a more purposeful and meaningful life is to make sure that the intensity of our emotions is in congruence with the actual situation. If someone close to you dies, feel sad. If you receive good news, feel happy. If someone punches you in the face, feel angry. It’s OK.