Does Your Anxiety Feel Oppressive?
Whether your anxiety is helpful or oppressive starts with how you think.
Posted September 21, 2020
Do you have an anxious mind? Are you beset with recurring bouts of apprehension that rob you of happiness and life satisfaction? Maybe you suffer from panic attacks, chronic worry, or fears about your health, job security, or the opinion of others.
Previously, I wrote that anxiety is a universal emotion that can be helpful in motivating us when facing difficult tasks and decisions. But maybe anxiety has become such an oppressive emotion in your life that any advantage is overshadowed by its adverse effects on your ability to function. Frequent experiences of intense anxiety have caused you to withdraw, avoid, and isolate so that now you’re barely able to meet the minimum standards of responsible living.
Even if you’ve always felt anxious, you may be asking: Why me? Why do I feel so anxious when my friends and family seem much calmer and self-confident? To answer this question, let’s return to Ava, who you met in my last post.
Ava’s Oppressive Anxiety
One of Ava’s greatest fears concerned the possibility that her children might be harmed or injured when they were out of her sight. She imagined them having a serious accident on the school playground, being victimized by a schoolmate’s aggression, or being abducted by a stranger. Once she started thinking about her kids, her mind immediately went to the worst-case scenario. Ava didn’t just think about her daughter falling off a swing and scraping her knee. Rather, she imagined a broken leg or a head injury that required her daughter to be rushed by ambulance to their local hospital.
Once these terrible scenarios entered her mind, she’d immediately feel tense, nervous, and on edge. She could feel her heart pounding, chest tighten, and waves of heat pulsate through her body. She felt so agitated that she sometimes paced around the office to quiet her nerves. The longer the anxiety episode, the more convinced she was that her children were in trouble. She’d call her husband to ask whether he thought the children were okay and on occasion she’d call the school to check up on the kids.
Ava’s anxiety about her children was becoming oppressive. It was causing her tremendous personal distress, interfering with her work productivity, and causing arguments with her husband. And yet, it was all for naught. Ava’s children were no less protected from injury than the children of other mothers who worried far less about their children’s safety.
Does Ava’s experience sound familiar? Have you developed an anxious mind?
What Makes a Mind Anxious?
To understand the anxious mind, we must return to the three legs of anxiety presented in the last post. What we think, how we interpret our feelings, and how we cope determine whether the anxiety intensifies and becomes a problem, or whether it remains at a manageable, healthy level that motivates us to deal with life’s challenges.
- The anxious way of thinking: The anxious mind tends to assume that threats to self or loved ones are more likely to happen than is realistic. Let’s take something that most of us do every day, like ride in or drive a car. If you’re anxious about driving, you might think the chances of having an accident are quite high; let’s say 1 in 100. But the average driver has only 3-4 car accidents in their lifetime and most of these are minor “fender-benders.”1 The anxious mind also tends to exaggerate the severity of an unwanted possibility. Again, if you take motor vehicle accidents, the anxious mind thinks of serious injury or death when feeling anxious about driving. Yet only 1 in 106 accidents result in death.2 None of us have an accurate view of possible threats to our well-being but when we exaggerate the likelihood and severity of the threat, we will feel more anxious. Overestimating threat and underestimating safety is the “jet fuel” for the anxious mind.
- The anxious way of feeling: The anxious mind tends to find the apprehension, nervousness, tension, and other physical symptoms of anxiety difficult to tolerate. It misinterprets anxious thoughts and feelings as highly significant3 and is convinced the anxiety will become unbearable.4 Instead of letting the anxiety pass on its own, the anxious mind believes it must take action to end its emotional turmoil.
- The anxious way of acting: Escape and avoidance are the two most common coping strategies of the anxious mind. No doubt they are the most effective means to stop anxiety in its tracks. Other strategies to dampen down anxiety include reassurance-seeking, drinking alcohol or other drugs, procrastinating, over-preparing, checking, and distraction. But these coping strategies also come at a big cost. They perpetuate anxiety by focusing on suppression rather than acceptance of our feelings.
Transforming the Anxious Mind
There are several ways you can reduce the burden of anxiety in your life.
- Catch yourself overestimating the probability and severity of threat and correct your thinking so it’s a better match with real-life experience.
- Most situations involve a mix of threat and safety. Make a greater effort to deeply consider the safety elements in a situation so you arrive at a more balanced perspective.
- Accept uncertainty rather than fear it. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the future is full of surprises and a lot of uncertainty. No matter how hard we try we can’t guarantee a certain future.
- Strengthen your tolerance for anxious feelings. Rather than trying to suppress and control anxiety, consider it a part of your emotional make-up. Work with your anxiety rather than against it.
Anxiety can be oppressive when the anxious mind dominates. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By thinking differently about threat, accepting your emotions, and changing your coping style, you can shift from an anxious mind to a healthier, more balanced perspective.
1. Retrieved from https://www.news9.com/story/5e6fca6cf86011d4820c3f2d/what-are-your-chan… on September 20, 2020.
2. Insurance Information Institute, Inc (2020). Facts + statistics: Mortality Risk. Retrieved from: https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-mortality-risk on September 20, 2020.
3. Clark, D.A. (2018). The anxious thoughts workbook: Skills to overcome the unwanted intrusive thoughts that drive anxiety, obsessions & depression. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
4. Leahy, R. L. (2020). Don’t believe everything you feel: A CBT workbook to identify your emotional schemas and find freedom from anxiety and depression. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.