According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnosis in adults in the U.S. They are on the rise in both children and adults in recent years, yet the majority of folks suffering go without treatment. Fortunately, these problems are very treatable! This post helps you to understand anxiety better, which is a great first step in overcoming it.
Reframing Our Thinking
As a therapist in Plano, Texas, my job involves listening to clients describe the things they “freaked out” about. Sometimes it’s work stress, or an argument they had with a friend or partner. Lately (thanks to Covid-19) these worries involve questions like: Is this ever going to end? Will I get back to the life I had before? Or even worse: What the hell is wrong with me? Why can’t I focus? When I ask them what “freaking out” means, they describe symptoms of anxiety. Increased heart rate. Racing thoughts. Impatience. A feeling of heaviness in the chest. Difficulty getting a deep breath.
Most of us can relate to worry, stress and anxiety... at least a little. But far too often we judge ourselves harshly for this. Yes, we can learn to manage our anxiety better, but can we please stop calling ourselves “crazy” for feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and stress? When we frame our reactions as having “totally lost it,” (or my personal choice, LMS= Lost My Shit) the less powerful we feel as time goes on. Feeling powerless begins to feel inevitable and shameful. The reality is that anxiety makes a lot of sense.
Understanding Anxiety: Our Social Environment
One reason we might struggle to understand and accept our uncomfortable feelings stems from the belief that we’re not supposed to have them (“Boys don’t cry!”). We don't learn much about emotions in childhood, much less how to cope with them. If we grow up with parents who don’t model the healthiest coping skills (e.g., mom drinks every night the second she gets home from work), it’s a double whammy. Add to that any cultural influences that prize emotional restraint (e.g., certain male athlete subcultures learn to be “tough” and not show “weakness”), and we have a perfect foundation for handling anxiety poorly. The common advice in American culture is to think positive, don’t worry, and be grateful for what’s good in your life. Our high-achieving culture demands that we work hard, but make it look easy.
Yet these “helpful” hints don’t work. For many, as time passes, anxiety starts to interfere with life in major ways. Along the way, it grows because we don’t dare talk about it, thereby deepening the isolation and feeling that there’s something wrong with us. We also witness others around us coping pretty badly with their own stress, modeling unhealthy behaviors. This is the equivalent of turning up the music to hide the weird sound your car is making.
In fact, anxiety is a lot like the weird sound your car is making. It usually alerts us that something needs attention. There’s a task we need to complete. There’s a possibility that someone is upset with us. So our body wants to help us mobilize. Our increased heart rate pumps more oxygen to our muscles. Our thoughts race to help us inventory all the possibilities we need to avoid when we talk to our friends.
Survival of the ‘Fraidest: Biology
Anxiety’s job is to keep us out of danger. Its motto is, “Better safe than sorry.” So back in caveperson days, if we saw something that might be a tiger, it was better to overreact than to “think positive.” In fact, the people who were most vigilant, and overreacted nine times for every one time there was actually a threat, were the ones who survived. In other words, we are still alive BECAUSE of our ancestors’ anxiety.
Unfortunately, we haven’t really come that far in terms of evolution. Our brains still react as if we might die if danger is present. In today’s world, however, the dangers are different. Less deadly. Our brains respond with worry and anxiety to breakups, stock market dips, and rush hour traffic. You can see how anxiety’s original intentions might get lost in translation. For example, overreacting to every email from your boss requesting a meeting will not help you prepare for the small possibility of “danger” in the form of getting fired. In fact, it might actually get in the way! Think about it: if we go into fight or flight mode whenever our boss wants to check in, that state of panic can distract us from our work and affect our performance. So, ironically, worrying about job loss might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In fact, this is often why people seek therapy for anxiety. While some level of anxiety is normal and helpful, there is a point when it does more harm than good. So how do we know which is which? If everyone feels anxiety, then does everyone need therapy? And will talking about it just make it worse? Isn’t the whole point to stop worrying? Actually, the key is to learn when it’s best to lean into the anxiety because it’s trying to tell you something, or when it’s best to ignore it because it’s leading you astray.
Taming Our Inner Caveperson
Ironically, in its noble quest to keep us out of danger, anxiety can sometimes stop us from getting help. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; not only do we need to stay alive, but in order to continue protecting us, anxiety has to stay alive too.
This is why, as much as we want to reduce our worry, we also have resistance to coping skills like listening to calming music, deep breathing, and therapy. When clients come to see me, they often know what to do to feel better, but anxiety is really good at convincing us that it’s not safe to let our guard down. And obviously, the best coping skills in the world won’t work if we can't use them!
Add to this the fact that according to neuroscience research, our brains are wired to keep doing stuff that makes us feel better quickly-- eating, smoking, drinking, shopping, sex. And our brains also are wired to avoid the stuff that makes us feel discomfort-- the anxiety itself.
Working with an anxiety counselor can help. Instead of taking these thoughts at face value, we can start to see patterns and connections in our “freak-outs.” We might identify the ways anxiety affects our actions, and brainstorm some ways to interrupt the cycles that aren’t working. We then practice these new skills over and over again, until we tame, or rewire, our brains to help us gain mastery over our anxiety.
If you want help with overcoming anxiety, I’d love to work with you! I OFFER VIRTUAL/VIDEO COUNSELING FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE!! If you’re looking for counseling in Plano, Texas contact me at 469-850-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include anxiety, depression, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, and body image issues. My office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.