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Anxiety, the Endless Alarm

Left on autopilot, it gets worse.

You could call the times we live in the second “Age of Anxiety."

Surveys and clinical data indicate the highest levels of national anxiety since the post-war publication of Auden's eponymous poem, when the shadow of nuclear holocaust loomed over us. This blog has taken the position that much of the ill-feelings we experience are due to exaggerated entitlement. We’re bound to be anxious when we feel entitled to control how other people think and what they say. When we inevitably fail to control others, we’re certain to feel resentful.

With anxiety and resentment all around us, it’s especially important to resist the vast contagion of those emotions by internally regulating our personal anxiety.

First Signal

Anxiety is the first signal of the mammalian alarm system. In all animals it signals a possibility of harm, deprivation, or sexual failure. In social animals, it signals possible (not probable) isolation or abandonment. In humans it signals loss of status and esteem.

Types of Anxiety

  • Temperamental: We’re born with an emotional tone that includes a certain propensity to anxiety.
  • Situational: Particular situations raise anxiety (test-taking, driving, public speaking, performance)
  • Symptomatic of something else: Emotional disorder, stress, depletion of physical resources (tired, hungry, ill).

Beneficial Anxiety

In small doses, anxiety is a vital emotion. Without it, we could be killed crossing the street and would find ourselves ill-prepared for many of the important tasks of life. Anxiety tells us to pay attention—something might happen. Simple anxiety is activated by actual or anticipated change in the environment, memory, or imagination. It makes us focus on dealing with the pending change by shutting out most other information. The anxiety about starting a fire in the room gets you to stop thinking about what you’ll have for lunch so you can focus on preventing the fire—check the gas, turn off the iron, service the furnace.

Among anxiety’s beneficial signals are those that tell us to improve:

  • Self-acceptance—when we're too self-critical
  • Self-care—when we need to sleep, eat-well, exercise, practice self-compassion
  • Relationships—when they need attention and possibly repair.

Problem Anxiety

The benefits of anxiety are lost when we construe it as a stop signal—a red light—rather than a caution signal—a yellow light. When that happens, we can be paralyzed by anxiety rather than motivated to improve our health, well-being, and safety.

In problem anxiety, all signals mean that something bad will happen that won't be able to be coped with, or for which the cost of coping will be too great.

Characteristics of Problem Anxiety

  • Scanning—taking in a lot of superficial information; makes it harder to focus, causes higher error rates
  • Thought-racing—the faster they go, the less reality-testing is applied
  • Thought-looping—thinking the same things over and over
  • Self-consciousness—I might be judged
  • Vigilance—judging others, looking for negatives.

Anxious people tend to be controlling, but not with malicious intent or desire to dominate. They try hard to avoid feeling “out of control” by keeping the environment from stimulating anxiety. Never mind that people hate to feel controlled, which means continual frustration. External regulation of emotions increases vigilance and worsens anxiety in the long run.

A lot of resentment and anger—especially in families—stems from anxiety that we blame on each other. ("Something bad will happen and it’s your fault!") Blame temporarily organizes thoughts and gives feelings of confidence and empowerment, thanks to amphetamine-like stimulants (adrenaline and cortisol—it’s hard to sit still when you're blaming). In the long run, blame worsens anxiety by forming habits of external regulation. If you're making me feel bad, I'm powerless to improve.

Regulating Anxiety

All good alarm systems are calibrated to give false positives. (You don’t want a smoke alarm that goes off only when the house is engulfed in flames; so you accept that it goes off occasionally when people are cooking or smoking.) Biological alarm systems are better-safe-than-sorry, which is why the central nervous system would rather be wrong a hundred times thinking your spouse is a saber-tooth tiger than be wrong once thinking a saber-tooth tiger is your spouse. We’re not descended from early humans who underestimated danger.

Recognize, however, that anxiety is not reality; it’s a signal about possible realty. Check out the alarm, but don’t mistake it for reality; the smoke alarm is not the fire. Most of the time, it signals caution, not danger.

Racing and looping thoughts must have answers to form alternative synaptic connections. Never have an anxious thought without giving it an answer, based on probability.

  • “I might lose my relationship.” Consider how likely this is. Answer: “I’ll do my best to save it. If I lose it, I’ll make the best of my life.”
  • “No one will love me.” Consider how likely this is. Answer: “I’ll be more compassionate, which will make me more lovable.”
  • "I’ll screw things up.” Consider how likely this is. Answer: “I’ll try my best to avoid a mistake and correct any I might make.”

For Situational Anxiety: Use the Anxiety Formula

Importance x Unknown x Perceived ability to cope

The classic example of the formula at work in situational anxiety is entering a cage full of lions, which, for most of us, would send anxiety levels through the roof. It has life-and-death importance, we don’t know anything about lion-behavior, and we don’t know what to do to stay alive. Yet the same situation is exhilarating for lion-tamers. It’s important, so they have to be careful, they know enough about lions to predict behaviors, and they have the skill to manipulate the big cats safely.

Since problem anxiety has little to do with imminent danger, we must first ask ourselves, “How important is it?” (How relevant to my core values?) Much of what we worry about are petty ego offenses and things that have utterly no influence on the quality of our lives, unless we obsess about them.

We reduce the unknown by learning more about what worries us. We increase perceived ability to cope by making contingency plans.

There are many other ways to regulate anxiety. The most effective is building a conditioned response that occurs automatically with anxiety arousal. That takes practice.

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