Like any other physical or mental condition, anxiety has its own symptoms and effects. Here is a brief walk-through of the most common ones and how to begin to counteract them:
1. Anxiety shuts down your rational brain. When you get anxious, your amygdala fires up, sends chemicals to your frontal lobe, your rational brain, and it goes offline.
2. Anxiety is generally about the future. While anxiety can take several forms—generalized anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder—and create differing symptoms—worrying, somatic symptoms such as knots in your stomach, restlessness—it is usually always about what-ifs in the future. This is in contrast to, say, depression and guilt, which are usually about the past.
3. There is rational and irrational anxiety. Rational anxiety is about real problems—the upcoming job interview, the fact that you haven’t heard back from your partner about picking up the kids. Irrational anxiety is… irrational. That you’ll do lousy on the interview, never get the job, and likely never get any job, and will inevitably wind up living in a cardboard box on the street in six months.
4. Anxiety makes everything important. Anxiety makes it difficult to see and set priorities. What to make for dinner can feel just as important as preparing for that job interview. This is why it is easy to feel overwhelmed—so much to do, so little time. And if you have a tendency towards perfectionism, it adds fuel to the fire, making it all worse.
5. If your anxiety gets too high, it becomes too difficult to rein in. If you think of your anxiety running on a 10-point scale with 1 being calm, and 10 being panicked and overwhelmed to the max, once it gets up to a 7 or 8, it can be difficult to rein it in.
6. If you listen to what your anxiety is telling you to do, you usually feel better. You are anxious about going to a party where you don’t know anyone. Your anxious mind tells you to stay home instead; you do, and your anxiety goes down. Similarly, if you worry about germs and wash your hands not once but five times, your worry subsides. All this reinforces those anxiety circuits in your brain.
7. ... but if you listen to your anxiety, your world also gets smaller. Because listening to your anxiety works to reduce it, it's easy to rely on it more and more. The danger here is that anxiety makes your world increasingly smaller. You don’t go to the party, and in 6 months, you’re rarely going out.
If you have a panic attack out-of-the-blue while driving, you understandably become fearful of having another, and so stop driving and start taking the bus. If you wash your hands five times, but then one time feel you didn't really do a good enough job, in three months, you'll find yourself needing to wash your hands 10 times.
8. Anxiety is more common in those with certain personality traits. Those prone to anxiety are often self-critical and driven by lots of "shoulds." They tend to internalize their emotions, are uncomfortable with strong emotions, and go out of their way to avoid conflict.
What often comes with anxiety is a walking-on-eggshells, make-others-happy coping style. Anxious people are often "nice" people. This was learned in childhood as a survival mechanism, and though it is no longer effective in the bigger adult world, it is difficult to turn off.
9. Anxiety can mask other emotions. Like those prone to anger, those prone to anxiety often have trouble discerning other feelings besides anxiety. Hurt, anger, sadness, etc., can all get translated into and perceived as anxiety.
10. At a base level, anxiety is about being afraid in the world.
What to Do Instead
1. Get your rational brain back online. This means pushing back and not allowing yourself to go down those rabbit holes of what-if. Instead, consciously shift your focus to the present, do a reality check, engage your adult, rational brain. Don’t let those obsessive thoughts continue to run.
2. Track your anxiety and catch it before it gets too high. Check-in with yourself every hour or so, and rate your anxiety. If it starts to get to a 4 or 5, it's time to ask yourself what is going on, time to take action before it climbs up to that danger zone.
3. Sort out rational from irrational anxiety; act on rational anxiety. And when you realize you're getting up to a 4 or 5, next ask yourself if there is a real problem to fix. If yes, do something decisive—prepare for the interview, call and ask about picking up the kids.
If it's irrational anxiety—the living in the cardboard box—it's time to actively take steps to lower your anxiety level. This is where you work to calm yourself down with exercise, meditation, medication, deep breathing. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the better.
4. Ask yourself what else might you be feeling besides anxious. After you determine whether your anxiety is rational or irrational, next ask yourself what else might you be feeling—angry, tired, hurt, etc. The first 300 times you ask the question, you’ll probably say to yourself you don’t know, you’re just getting anxious. That’s OK. By asking the question, you’re beginning to rewire your brain.
And if you are able to define an emotion, label it and ideally act on it. If you are angry with someone, send them a text or call them to let them know how you feel. This is not about them or the situation, but about grounding that feeling and, over time, becoming more emotionally diversified.
5. Practice setting priorities. Before you get into the thick of your day/week and quickly lose sight of your priorities, take time when your rational brain is in gear, say, on a Sunday night, and sort out priorities for the day/week. Don't have a list of 50 important things to do; narrow it down to a list of five.
6. Work on your personality traits. Your anxious brain is telling you that the only way to feel less anxious is to be more perfect, walk on eggshells, internalize more. You want to push against these commands, and consciously practice being kind to yourself rather than self-critical, being more assertive with others rather than accommodating, taking baby steps towards tolerating conflict and strong emotions.
7. Take risks; run towards what you are afraid of. The goal in successfully dealing with anxiety is not that of learning not to be anxious, but to tolerate it better so that it doesn't derail you. You want to desensitize yourself to the feeling of anxiety by deliberately doing things that go against your grain, by approaching rather than avoiding what makes you anxious.
By doing this, you set in motion a few important processes: By simply taking risks and stepping outside your comfort zone, you not only enlarge your world rather than making it smaller, but you increase your overall self-confidence and self-esteem, making it easier to continue moving forward.
In addition, you create opportunities to discover that all the negative things, which your anxious mind has been telling you will happen, usually don't. As these positive experiences accumulate, your overall perspective begins to shift; the world seems less frightening, more safe.
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