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Anxiety Is Not Your Enemy

As I type the above blog title, I can almost hear a common response: “Wait, what? Aren’t you a psychologist? Aren’t you supposed to see anxiety as the enemy? That’s like your doctor telling you to embrace your disease or your dentist telling you to make friends with your cavity.” Well, not exactly. When it comes to anxiety, it’s important that we have a nuanced understanding of how it affects us in both negative--and yes--positive ways.

Let’s begin with how anxiety can be beneficial. From an evolutionary perspective, it has allowed us to survive as a species. Think about a cave man facing a wild animal. His physiological symptoms of fear (racing heart, increased blood flow, etc.) allowed him to either fight the beast or run as far away as possible. This fight-or-flight response kept him alive and able to pass his genes onto future generations who also had a similar fear response. In modern times, a woman who is worried about car safety will wear a seatbelt, allowing her to survive a potential crash. A teenager who fears getting hit by a car will look both ways before crossing the street. Moderate anxiety allows us to take actions that contribute to our safety and wellbeing.

Moderate anxiety also has the benefit of improving human performance. The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal...but only up to a point.

The bell-shaped curve illustrates how we tend to do better at a task when it activates our sympathetic nervous system. Think back to when you were an undergrad--worrying about failing a test likely motivated you to study, thereby getting a good (or at least decent) grade. Ideally you were performing at the peak of the curve, unlike your slacker roommate who didn’t care enough to crack open a book (represented by the far left of the curve). But as we see on the right side of this model, high levels of stress can serve to impair one’s functioning, which will be discussed later in this post.

Anxiety can also be seen as a signal that something is not quite right. If you’re waking up every morning with a pit in your stomach thinking about going to work, perhaps something needs to be addressed. Maybe it’s the hours you work, the amount that’s on your plate, or interpersonal conflict with coworkers. Use this feeling to step back and take stock of how you can improve some of these aspects of your job. Doing so will hopefully allow you to derive a greater sense of pleasure and mastery in your daily life.

When faced with anxiety, it’s best to name it and then reframe it. In other words, acknowledge its presence and then think about what purpose it might be serving. Perhaps your anxiety is your body’s way of showing you that you care. I often give mental health lectures and workshops to large audiences. And although I might look calm on the outside, you better believe that each and every time I get a little scared--my heart races, my stomach is a bit in knots, and my palms are, admittedly, a little sweaty. And that’s okay! It shows me that I care about the work I do and the people listening to me speak.

Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who wowed us all at the 2021 presidential inauguration, recently published an article in the New York Times about how frightened she was to read her poem. And yet, she used that fear to reaffirm the importance of her standing on that stage, reciting her powerful words. In the article she states, “I’m a firm believer that often terror is trying to tell us of a force far greater than despair. In this way, I look at fear not as cowardice but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear.”

Another way to reframe your anxiety is to see it as an expression of excitement. Think about how you feel on a first date with someone you actually like: your heart is racing, you have butterflies in your stomach, the whole nine yards. Yes, you’re nervous and yes, you’re excited! Research shows that the same part of the brain is activated when you experience both of these emotions. Being aware of the overlap between anxiety and excitement can allow you to make the most of your nervous energy and channel it to optimize performance. In other words, it’s fine to have butterflies in your stomach--your job is to help them fly in formation. This is also good advice to impart onto our children. So the next time your daughter tells you she’s scared before a little league game, don’t tell her to not be afraid. Instead, encourage her to use that energy out on the field. You might both be surprised at how effective this reframing can be!

Another reason to avoid desperately trying to get rid of your fear response is that doing so often makes it worse. Think of anxiety as a bully. If you run away from the bully, you are only causing it to taunt you even further. Instead, consider facing it and saying something like, “hit me with your best shot.” If we learned anything from cheesy 80s movies, once the bully sees they can’t scare you anymore, they lose interest and move onto their next victim. More importantly, facing your anxiety demonstrates your ability to tolerate distress. At the risk of sounding trite, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In fact, each time you face your anxiety, you are weakening the fear response. We often talk to our patients about imagining their anxiety as a wave in the ocean, which crests and then eventually recedes. The only way you can experience this subsiding is by riding out the wave instead of running for the shore.

By now you might be thinking “Okay, it sounds like anxiety isn’t so bad. So is that it?” Well, not exactly. As mentioned earlier, anxiety in moderation can serve an important purpose. In moderation. But of course we know that at a certain point, it can be quite harmful. Sometimes the alarm bells of anxiety are false alarms, making you think situations are more dangerous than they actually are. Imagine your home’s smoke detector going off several times a day, alerting you to hazards that aren’t actually present. Over time, this prolonged anxiety can develop into a diagnosable anxiety disorder, which might require professional help.

One should consider treatment if they are experiencing impaired functioning in their daily routine, disturbed sleep, significant changes in eating, panic attacks, intrusive negative thoughts, or difficulty concentrating. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be the most effective treatment for a wide range of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, and panic disorder. Working with a trained therapist, you can learn tools to effectively manage your anxiety. The psychologists at Grand Central Psychology are all trained in CBT and have extensive experience working with individuals suffering from anxiety. If you are interested in learning more about our services, please visit our website and schedule a free consultation with one of our psychologists.

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