This post is Part 1 in a 3-part blog series on how to be less anxious.
Anxiety is one of the most common problems people face, and it can really make your life tough. Anxiety can show up in a lot of different forms. Maybe you experience small worries about a lot of different things in your life. Or maybe you have a LOT of anxiety about one particular thing (e.g., being in social situations, flying on a plane, etc.). Other people have panic attacks—they get so anxious that they feel as if they are having a heart attack or can’t breathe. Still other people have obsessions and compulsions—they get focused on one particular thought (e.g., germs or contamination) and have to do something over and over again (e.g., wash their hands) to get relief. If you’re struggling with anxiety, and it’s interfering in your life, it’s a good idea to learn more about it and get some tips for how to deal with it.
Anxiety is About Fear
In this first post about how to be less anxious, I want to help us understand what anxiety is about, and how it is maintained over time. At its core, anxiety is about fear. We feel fear when we are in a dangerous situation. Fear is an important emotion, because it helps keep us safe. When we feel fear, our natural tendency is to do something to protect ourselves.
Escape and Avoidance
The most common response when we feel fear is to do something to escape or avoid the thing we are afraid of. If we are truly in danger, this is very important. For example, if we are hiking in the woods, and come across a bear, we will feel a high level of fear. Our fear will encourage us to high tail it out of there. We need our fear to protect us.
Anxiety as Misplaced Fear
The problem with anxiety, however, is that our fear response gets triggered in situations that aren’t actually dangerous to us. For example, we might feel an incredible amount of fear in a social situation, such as asking someone out on a date. This situation isn’t actually dangerous, but it might feel that way (similar to the bear in the woods). The feeling of fear might lead us to escape or avoid the situation (i.e., not ask the person out on a date). In this way, our anxiety gets in the way of our relationships.
Escape and Avoidance Reinforce the Fear Response
The problem with the natural reaction of escape and avoidance is that it actually exacerbates our fear and anxiety. Here’s why: Let’s say I feel a high amount of anxiety about flying on an airplane. Because of this anxiety, I avoid flying and drive everywhere instead. In my mind, I reinforce the connection between “not flying” and “staying safe.”
However, I also reinforce another connection in my mind. Because I didn’t end up getting on the plane, the connection between “flying” and “possibly crashing and dying” also gets reinforced. When I escape and avoid the thing I’m afraid of, I might feel relief, like I just missed something catastrophic. But even though I might feel better in the moment, the fear and anxiety ultimately gets reinforced.
Take Home Points: Anxiety is ultimately about fear. Fear is a good and necessary emotion, but for people who struggle with anxiety, the fear response is misplaced or excessive. The natural response to fear is escape or avoidance. Although the escape or avoidance might provide relief in the short run, it isn’t helpful in the long run because the fear response gets reinforced each time you escape or avoid the thing you are afraid of.