The topic of anxiety is a common one, particularly in the counseling office; indeed, at times it seems everyone is discussing “my anxiety”, the “nation’s anxiety” and “our kid’s” anxiety. Reasons we experience anxiety are many although current events currently seem to be at the top of the list. As our society works to decide the difference between right and wrong, strains to define our identity and who we are as local residents, Americans, immigrants, people of faith etc. anxiety and fear are frequently present in the discussion. With all these words, thoughts, ideas, passions and opinion flying around us, it is understandable then that the topic of anxiety has been woven into the conversation as we seek to understand our own positions in the world.
Discussion on anxiety often begins with a statement such as “I’ve been feeling very anxious” or “my stress level is through the roof” or “He/she/they have anxiety.” followed by questions such as “what do I do about this?” and “What if this never goes away?” The perception of anxiety is that it is a “bad” feeling to experience and one should, at all cost, work to avoid this emotional state. This reaction to anxiety is understandable as the experience of “having” anxiety or being “flooded” by anxiety can be, well, awful.
Anxiety belongs in the fear category of emotion. Examples of other words used to describe various levels of fear in a (somewhat) order of intensity are: concerned, nervous, stressed, worried, (anxious), panicked, fearful, afraid, terrified. Every emotion that we experience tells us something that, when understood, is able to give valuable information and insight linked to our circumstance and the words in the fear category are no exception. The job of fear is to keep us safe. In essence, when we are afraid it is fear telling us “watch out! If you keep going this way you will be hurt!”. A simple example is to consider any dangerous situation that comes to mind and we see quickly that our brain take in the information, makes an assessment causing our body to move into survival as we prepare to fight our way out, run from the danger or freeze and hide from the danger. Fear does indeed keep us safe during times of actual danger. However the experience of feeling anxious has often been described as vague but persistent, linked to any number of worries that may be real or imagined and in many cases the individual is not able to identify what they are anxious about. In the case of anxiety it is a general, hard to define sense of apprehension caused by worry that triggers our amygdala to release chemicals such as cortisol into our body preparing us to fight, flee or freeze. Therefore, anxiety is the experience in our bodies that tells us there is a worry taking place in our thoughts, with the message being some version of “I am in danger”.
When a client is asking for help to reduce their anxiety, (which originates with a worry) the work begins by looking for the specific worried thought and belief followed by how or why this thought is communicating “danger!”. As an individual learns to tolerate anxiety (without trying to avoid it, stop or change it) they then can determine what specific worry triggered the anxiety
in the first place. By learning to understanding the worried thought, they are then able to gather the data from that thought and determine if indeed it is a healthy or unhealthy worry. After all, if the job of fear is to keep us safe then at times, shouldn’t we be checking to see if indeed we need to be listening to it?
The answer is yes. At times, worry indeed does it’s job by signaling us of a need to: study, organize for the next day, send the second half of dessert home with a family member, invest some time in a relationship, apply our breaks while driving etc. If, however, we begin to see all of life, each situation and circumstance, every person as dangerous or harmful in some way the
direct result of this chronic anxious outlook can be life-changing; and not for the better. Indeed, anxiety has been described as a bully and many clients who have struggled in this manner agree. Deciding to learn about what is causing chronic worry and the ensuing anxiety is a brave and important step in being the best you for this wonderful life we’ve been given.
It is important to note that facing anxiety goes well beyond our own selves as anxiety is contagious. It is considered generational. Anxiety can infect organizations, churches, communities and even a nation. When one person is willing to face their anxiety, the results cannot help but to have positive influences on one’s family and beyond.
Suggested reading are the highly recommended authors Lynn Lyons & Dr.Reid Wilson (Anxious Kids Anxious Parents) and Dr. Paul Foxman (Dancing With Fear). Each of these professionals have many resources both online and in hardcopy form that many people have used to increase their knowledge of themselves while decreasing their anxiety. This is hard work but also very important work that is certainly well worth the effort.