Start Letting Anxiety Work For You!

Often times in my clinical practice clients come to me seeking any knowledge or tool they can use to get rid of their anxiety completely. Many times they tell me "I can not stand my anxiety" or "I will do anything to stop worrying!". After processing this with my clients over time I came to the realization that as a culture we have grown to become phobic and intolerant of our own anxious feelings.

Anxiety is like any other emotion, and was created with a purpose. We owe our entire existence to anxiety because without it, we would not have the energy or motivation to self-preserve and avoid potential physical or emotional harm. If for example I was in the jungle and a tiger were to come into view, my anxious thoughts and feelings would give a surge to my brain and body's arousal system cuing me to fight, flight or freeze. If I had no anxiety at all my body would not signal my arousal system to get up and go, and I would most likely become the tiger's lunch!

Anxiety also motivates us to protect ourselves from potential or imagined emotional harm. If I'm a graduate student fearing a failing grade on an important exam, I may visualize myself getting the failing grade and begin to feel the disappointment, frustration, and possible shame of not getting the passing grade that I had imagined. Since failing the exam I deem as undesirable to experience, my anxious and concerned thoughts and images would increase my anxiety levels and motivate me to do something about it. Healthy levels of anxiety give a signal to my body's arousal system providing me with the alertness and energy necessary to put in that extra hour of studying for the exam that I would not have naturally put in without it.

Anxiety in healthy levels in actuality is a friend of ours. The issue with anxiety, worry, and fear is that these emotions are mostly beneficial to us when experienced in mild to moderate levels. When we begin to obsess and ruminate about things that we interpret as potentially physically and / or emotionally confident, and we misconstrue the realistic exit of the triggering event by "blowing it out or proportion", as a consequence we increase our anxiety to a higher and more dangerous zone. In this danger zone anxiety begins to turn it's back on us for the worse unless we are in a position of imminent physical harm.

Since using the logical reasoning part of the brain takes more time and energy to use, our brain in the danger zone does not think it has the time or energy to process the event to its fullest and goes into the "rather safe than sorry" fight, flight, or freeze mode. Like in the example with the tiger, if I spent time evaluating and planning what to do I would have a lesser chance of surviving. In this danger zone, our brain becomes overpowered by the arousal fight, flight or freeze part of the brain (the amygdala) making it significantly more difficult to access logical and rational thoughts. When this happens we become emotionally immobilized by our anxiety, unable to access the part of the brain (the frontal lobe) which allows us to logically think through the event, and ascertain whatever what we interpret to happen is likely to come true or not.

In my example about studying for my important exam the next day, putting myself into the anxiety danger zone is going to be to my detriment. My body will start taking energy needed for proper digestion to use to power my hands and feet so I can potentially run from what I fear may happen, causing me to procrastinate studying and / or possibly avoid going to or run from the testing site. Unable to digest food properly is one of the many physical consequences of putting myself into this zone. Being in this danger zone will also heighten my body's arousal system surging it with adrenaline resulting in the inability for me to fall sleep the night before the exam. It will send more blood to my peripheral muscles from my head and other important parts of my body to store for my potential fight, flight or freeze response. This would cause me to have less access to the logic and reasoning part of the brain I would most definitely need the day of the exam.

The solution to keeping anxiety as our friend working for us rather than against us is to spend time monitoring our thoughts and the images we put into our minds. Catching and reevaluating our thoughts will reduce our emotional stress. It's more productive and beneficial to focus on the skills and resources we have to solve our problems, and surrender the rest! Obsessing and ruminating about our shortcomings and the unknown rarely helps us to reduce anxiety to more moderate problem-solving levels. Deep breathing can help give us the necessary oxygen in our body to calm our arousal system down. Picturing pleasant and happy images reduces the amount the arousal system is triggered. Telling ourselves affirmations such as "I can handle whatever life throws at me," and "I can tolerate distress and use it as motivation to solve my problems" are some helpful cognitive examples to bring anxiety back down to moderate and minimal levels. These skills used in combination will encourage anxiety to begin working for us again, so that we can better overcome life's challenges, rather than being consumed by them.