“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”
Anxiety is, in fact, a very normal aspect of the human experience. Throughout evolution the fear response associated with anxiety has protected us from danger or help us deal with threats. Although we are not typically faced with the same dangers as those of our early ancestors, there are times even now that some anxiety can be helpful (i.e. a little bit of anxiety can encourage us to prepare for situations like a job interview). Excessive anxiety, however, can be debilitating. In many of these cases we are overestimating how dangerous a situation may be while undermining our ability to cope with it. Common types of excessive anxiety are generalized anxiety (or excessive worry occurring most days about normal activities); social anxiety (excessive fear of social situations or performance); and panic (sudden surges of overwhelming anxiety without an obvious trigger).
When we experience anxiety our bodies undergo various physiological changes (i.e. sweating; shortness of breath; dry mouth; tension in chest). These physiological responses occur when certain chemicals are released under a perceived or real threat. It helps us to run away, standstill, or prepare to fight (also known as the flight, fight or freeze response). Sometimes, however, our body releases these chemicals when perhaps our perceptions are inaccurate and it is not warranted (ie speaking in front of others may feel like danger, when in fact it is our beliefs about speaking in front of people that creates the anxiety response). Typically excessive anxiety is maintained by various unhelpful thinking styles that occur before, during or after an anxiety provoking situation. A common thinking style associated with anxiety is “predicting” (i.e. “what if I say something stupid and people judge me?”). A common behavioural response to a thought like that might be to avoid the situation altogether. Although it may relieve the anxiety in the moment, it can make it difficult to learn that many of our assumptions may be distorted. Inevitably, we have to expose ourselves to the situations that make us anxious in order to overcome it.
The above illustrates how our thoughts can contribute to how we feel and subsequently how we behave. Based on this idea, a helpful approach to managing anxiety is one that challenges both the unhelpful or distorted thoughts as well as some of the behaviours/responses like avoidance. That said, it can be very difficult to challenge our thoughts when our bodies are preparing us for danger. Learning relaxation strategies (i.e. deep breathing or sensory grounding) and mindfulness can help reduce anxiety in these cases so that we can then work on changing the anxiety provoking thoughts. Additionally, creating a healthy self-care plan (i.e. healthy diet, regular exercise, fostering positive social connections) also improves our ability to cope with life stressors.
If you are struggling with excessive anxiety and would like additional resources or would like to set up a counselling appointment please contact me directly.
By Tanya Ward, MA, RCC
If you would like to learn more about mindfulness and specifically ‘sensory grounding’ to reduce anxiety, you may be interested in this free mini e-course, which teaches the Nature-Based Sensory Grounding technique: