Key Points: A common response to anxiety is to try to suppress or escape it, but doing so can make it more troublesome in the long run. Reframing anxiety as an ally rather than an enemy could help change our relationship with it for the better.
In these fraught times, anxiety seems to have shifted from being an exception to more of a rule. To cope, we suppress it. We keep calm and carry on. Yet, even before the pandemic, anxiety was a crisis—an estimated one-third of us will suffer from debilitating levels of anxiety at some point in our life. Clearly, hundreds of excellent self-help books, thousands of rigorous scientific studies, and 30 different anti-anxiety medications are not helping enough. Why not?
One reason may be that a common story of anxiety—the disease story—does more harm than good. This story tells us that we should treat anxiety like a life-threatening disease to be prevented, avoided, and stamped out at all costs. Unfortunately, the more we avoid and suppress anxiety, the more it grows. Simply tell someone to stop worrying, and the worry is sure to increase. Moreover, while suppression puts anxiety on hold for a short time, we lose opportunities to face our fears and learn to cope.
How would you complete this sentence?
When I notice I am feeling anxious—worried thoughts, racing heart, fast breathing, or butterflies in my stomach—my next thought is that:
a) ... I should push down these feelings and keep calm because they’re a warning sign that I might lose control.
b) ... my mind and body are getting ready to deal with a challenge.
Most of us in our heart-of-hearts answer with a; but the truth is more often than not b. Which answer we choose can have a powerful impact. For example, in a 2013 study, Harvard researchers recruited socially anxious participants to complete an anxiety stress test involving a public speech and difficult math problems. Experimenters told half of the participants to reimagine that their racing heart and butterflies in their stomach were beneficial, having “evolved to help our ancestors survive by delivering oxygen to where it is needed in the body.” When they went on to do the stress test, those who received this reframing, compared to the group who did not, felt less anxious and showed fewer signs of stress on the biological level—less blood vessel constriction and more heart rate efficiency. Just telling a different story about the meaning and purpose of their “nerves” made them feel less anxious about anxiety, and even changed how their body was functioning.
When we suppress anxiety, it becomes difficult to appreciate what these research participants experienced—anxiety, rather than being an enemy, can be an ally.
Seeing Anxiety as an Ally
Anxiety is unpleasant by design because it is a signal meant to grab our attention. Like a light blinking on to indicate a charged battery, anxiety shows that our minds and bodies are prepared to handle a threat. When we suppress anxiety, it’s harder to detect that signal, and harder to see that anxiety can be incredibly useful because it triggers our future thinking, where we anticipate that danger is possible, but not a given.
Indeed, anxiety would not exist without one of the great achievements of human evolution—our ability to imagine and mentally inhabit the uncertain and unknowable future. When anxiety propels us into the future tense, we are often smarter, more focused, and more goal-oriented so that we can snap into action if needed. In other words, we are anxious when we care about the future. When we look at it this way, we realize that anxiety lives hand-in-hand with our ability to hope.
If we shift our mindset about anxiety—from enemy to ally—and reduce our anxiety about anxiety, we discover that we can learn to be anxious in the right ways, especially during these uncertain, fraught times.
How to Begin to Master Anxiety
As with mastering any skill, the best way to shift our mindset about anxiety is to practice it. The very first step is to listen to what anxiety is telling us. Not only does this short-circuit a powerful engine of anxiety—avoidance—but it provides key information we might not be consciously aware of, like a "tummy test" telling us that something is not quite right. When we go ahead and delve into those anxious feelings, we are also better able to figure out causes and deal with them. Catching anxiety early, before it spirals, is good, but listening to anxiety can help anytime, even when we’re already struggling or have an anxiety disorder.
There are many ways to tune into our anxiety, depending on our habits and preferences. We might like to talk through things with a friend or loved one, meditate, take a quiet walk, let our thoughts wander while we relax in the bath, or keep a journal. Scheduling the time to tune in is key to creating the space for it to happen. Carving out time also allows us to deepen connections—to ourselves, others, and the things we care about. Such connections are some of the great disrupters of problematic anxiety because they remind us that we care about the future, and that good things in life will follow us there.
It is worth remembering that many of us avoid anxiety by escaping into our screens—perhaps more than ever during the pandemic. Of course, a little binge-watching here and there is a much-needed break. If we do this too much, however, or we’re doom scrolling and going down social media rabbit holes every day, for hours, we might be in an unhelpful escape mode. Take it as a sign that anxiety is simmering under the surface, and take a look before it boils over.
The next time you’re about to embark on a challenge—whether it’s a public speech, hearing back about a medical test, or a difficult interview or conversation—take a moment and consider: If my heart races, if I feel nervous or jittery, this means my body and mind are preparing to act. In a tough situation, anxiety makes me stronger. I’ll just take a deep breath, and know that I am ready. By challenging our assumptions, we can reclaim anxiety for what it has always been—a gift rather than a curse.
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