Anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges people experience, yet often when people are asked about the nature of human anxiety they find it difficult to describe and understand. While we all experience anxiety, many people are unfamiliar with exactly what anxiety is, why anxiety increases with stress, and what we should do when we want to reduce the anxiety we experience. Today I would like to explore these psychology questions in greater detail, and hopefully help you understand more about a hard-wired, safety feature of the human experience.
Anxiety is defined as feelings of uneasiness and worry usually brought on as a reaction to individually perceived stressful situations. These feelings often result in physiological reactions that impact our mental health, including muscular tension, fatigue, shortness of breath, and stomach butterflies. Anxiety occurs when we feel (subjectively) threatened and experience fear, even in cases where there is nothing objectively harmful to fear. Human anxiety, in reality, is a built-in security system that alerts and warns us of imminent danger, but often our anxiety can morph from being a feature to being a burden when our subjective appraisal system steers off course and directs our thinking into believing the world is more threatening than what is actually factual.
Anxiety might also be better understood by thinking of it in terms of one side of a coin, where the other side is confidence. When we face a new task, we almost immediately make an appraisal of whether we can successfully complete the task, and that decision largely determines where our thinking and behaviors will follow. For example, lets assume you are asked to juggle 3 balls in front of an audience, but you have never juggled before and actually think of yourself as quite clumsy. It is likely you will immediately think there’s no way I can do this, followed by stomach butterflies, shaky hands, and rapid heart beat. The anxiety you are experiencing here flows from your subjective thinking, and your body responds in a protective way by alerting you to the perceived danger of looming embarrassment. Unfortunately, the anxiety in this example will also likely prevent you from successful juggling as your thinking is distorted and your body is doing everything but synchronizing with your mind.
Interestingly, had your first appraisal to the juggling challenge been to think you can do it, and that you are a fairly coordinated person capable of doing these kinds of tasks, then your thinking would have steered away from anxiety and toward self-confidence — the ideal mindset needed to experience life success. Confidence, therefore, is similar to anxiety in that it develops from our subjective thinking relating to our likelihood for future success.
There are a number of non-drug approaches to reducing human anxiety that can be easily implemented and yield optimal outcomes. Remember, anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, and that it is our mind’s way of alerting us to potential harm/danger. Anxiety becomes a problem, however, when it is regularly triggered by life events that should not be perceived as threatening and are of no real threat to us. Depending on the degree of anxiety one regularly encounters in what would otherwise be normal life situations will dictate the importance of learning anxiety-reducing strategies. A few basic anxiety-reducing tips and ideas are presented below:
- Getting rid of anxiety is not the goal. Remember, anxiety is healthy when it warns us of danger, and only becomes a problem when we begin to perceive otherwise healthy, normal life conditions as threatening. The goal, therefore, is to control and direct anxiety when needed, not eliminate anxiety altogether.
- Deep breathing. The theory of reciprocal inhibition states that anxiety will be inhibited by a feeling or response that is not compatible with the feeling of anxiety. When we engage in calming, deep, rhythmic breathing, it becomes impossible to remain at fire-alarm anxiety state at the same exact time. Learning how to use deep breathing is arguably the single, most effective way to self-calm and reduce anxiety to a more manageable state.
- Self talk. What we say to ourselves has a direct effect on our thinking and behaviors — for better or for worse. Positive self-talk reduces anxiety, while fearful self-talk increases anxiety. Offer yourself simple reassurance (i.e “I got this“) and watch your body follow your thinking by providing calm, confident responses and movements.
- Imagery. See yourself being successful by mentally rehearsing what you need to do as you approach a problem or task, and incorporate as many human senses as you can to make the imagery experience as real as possible.
While all of the ideas can help reduce anxiety, the more you understand human anxiety and the benefits we experience as a result of anxiety the more equipped you will be to respond when you feel anxiety spike. Knowing anxiety is an alert signal is a good thing, and then learning to control it through breathing and other strategies will allow you to use anxiety rather than be a victim of anxiety.
Often people talk about anxiety as though it is something you either have or don’t have, when in reality we are all equipped with a human perception system that has the capability of triggering anxiety when we enter stressful life situations. Understanding human anxiety and how it is inversely related to confidence allows people to identify how they appraise life situations, and the behaviors that flow from their own unique perception system. Believe in yourself and experience confidence, while fear and self-doubt will trigger anxiety — often it is our choices in life that directly impact life outcomes.