Anxiety. Everyone experiences it. Whether it is anxiety about going to a party, submitting an assignment or a fear of flying, we all know those uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and body sensations. However, Anxiety is a natural part of being human. Anxiety can be protective, in small amounts, to activate our bodies and focus our minds on responding to a perceived stressor or danger. If we had no sense of danger, we might do something silly, like accidentally walking into a busy street without looking.
But, we’ve all also had times when anxiety has felt overwhelming and disabling. Sometimes we even get anxious about being anxious! Sometimes anxiety feels so big that we just want to escape what’s provoking it. This is a natural response, but it cannot be our only response. We need more tools to use!
As you can see in the below picture, our natural response to Anxiety is to avoid it or to engage in behaviours that reduce the sense of threat, called “Safety behaviours”. Avoidance and safety behaviours can take many forms. Still, they might look like over-preparation, leaving situations, avoiding people and responsibilities, checking work repeatedly, needing a comforting object with you, and many others.
While our safety behaviors help us feel okay and reduce our anxiety, this is only a short-term solution. The anxiety doesn’t fully go away, and it comes back quickly. This habit of avoidance and using safety behaviours teaches our brain to be more afraid, which makes our anxiety response bigger.
Sadly, we also begin to believe negative things about ourselves and life, like “I can’t cope with worry”, “life is too overwhelming”, “I’m always going to be anxious”, and “I have to check my assignment again and again and again and…”.
But there is hope! We can learn to master our anxiety (and negative ways of thinking about ourselves) by reversing the cycle. Instead of avoiding the scary thing, we take a step back and think about ways we can practice approaching it instead in small steps. While it sounds counterintuitive, and we will feel a small spike of anxiety when doing it, we are teaching our brains and ourselves that we can cope with the worrysome thing!
For example, if you were fearful about socialising, and noticed that you kept rejecting invitations out of worry, you might challenge yourself to accept an invitation, and then attend for a short period of time, and then extend that period of time over a few outings, and then go solo! You can even make a list of successively harder challenges and call it a “Bravery Ladder” (psychologists call it an Exposure Hierarchy). With each new challenge you meet, you can be proud of your attempt and start to think of yourself as braver and braver.
This can be a scary concept in itself, but remember that you’re already experiencing anxiety, this is just using the worry in a productive way. It’s also important to remember to give your brain time and patience to learn a new habit.
You can work on anxiety with a psychologist and learn many new and tailored skills to manage anxiety. Our team of highly skilled and well-experienced Psychologists are here to help. Call us now and take that first brave step towards a meaningful and enjoyable life.