There’s a lot of anxiety about and it gets everywhere. The executive who is anxious about going to the management meeting and speaking, or the traffic accident victim afraid to drive or cross the road, or the parent afraid to go to the school gates and face teachers or fellow parents.
Of course, in many cases it is a normal response and doesn’t become excessive. It might be strange if we didn’t feel slightly worried about delivering a public speech to an audience of hundreds, or when moving house or job, or when crossing a road following a road accident. Anxiety only becomes dysfunctional for us when it becomes too frequent, too prolonged, too disproportionately intense for the situation.
An Honorable History
The good news is that anxiety serves a purpose, and in evolutionary terms, has an honourable history. When we sense a threat to us in any way we are hard-wired to fight, flee, or freeze. The amygdala in our brain delivers this primitive core function with conviction, and without it the human race would never have evolved, or wouldn’t have survived for long if it did.
However, as humans, we are no longer completely ruled by instinctive responses. We have the pre-frontal cortex to use reason, assess the risk, and overrule our instincts when necessary.
Excessive anxiety is caused by us listening to our instinctive alarm system and not putting it into context. There are three things to do to help us get a true perspective on the alarming messages.
Do the Math(s)
First, do the statistics. Highly anxious people routinely over-estimate the true probability of something bad happening. “There is a hundred percent chance that everyone in the room will think that what I say is stupid,” though in reality, only one or two might, if at all. “Because I had had one accident, I’m almost certainly going to have another one,” though statistically the chances of having two accidents are less than having one, and extra vigilance following an accident makes the chances even lower.
Don’t lie to yourself and exaggerate the probability. You might want certainty that something bad won’t happen, but that is impossible. Work at believing something true and helpful. The chances are probably fewer than you are telling yourself.
Awfulitis is Awful
Secondly, stop yourself going down the awfulitis road. Albert Ellis, a famous American psychotherapist, said that many people suffer from awfulitis – the ability to take something bad and make it much worse than it is.
What you are fearing may be bad, but if it happened, it probably wouldn’t be as bad as you imagine it would be. People not liking us is unpleasant, but it is not totally devastating unless we make it so. Losing a relationship may be painful, but it need not be totally destructive unless we make it so.
Remember Your Real Resources
Thirdly, don’t underestimate your own resources for coping if the feared thing actually happened. You may not like coping; you may not want to cope; but you probably would cope. And if you stop and think for a moment, you have probably successfully coped with much worse things in the past.
Many of the people I work with are anxious about going into a room with strangers, or afraid that they may say something “wrong” in social situations, for example. However, many of these same people have successfully coped with and survived far worse problems – for example, moving house or changing job, serious illness or death of a loved one, giving birth and/or bringing up children, living in a house with teenagers, coping with financial strain and debt.
As human beings we are talented and creative. We have significant resources and more coping ability than we realise. It helps to remember what we have done and can do, rather than lie to ourselves about what we can’t.
Excessive anxiety is a misuse of imagination. Using truth to challenge the lies we tell ourselves can help us bring excessive anxiety down to levels that we will almost certainly cope with.
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