Yes, anxiety can be a problem, potentially a debilitating one at that. However, I’m suggesting that how we perceive it and react to it, is what really deserves our attention.
Anxiety is basically a degree of distress that arises when you anticipate some threat or danger. It primes your fight, flight or freeze reaction.
This reaction is one of survival. It makes it possible to jump out of the path of oncoming traffic, flee from an attacker or freeze at the sight of a snake. A thumping heart, tightness in the chest, knots in the stomach and dizziness may occur as part of the reaction – all of which are signs of the body’s preparation to act to survive. Likewise, there’s a switch from any reflective thinking or planning to intense do-or-die thoughts.
It is an alarming yet understandable and necessary reaction. Unfortunately though, you can get the alarming reaction and urge to flee even where there is no overt danger. In this case, what triggers the reaction is not a real threat, but anxiety itself.
Being reasonably anxious about snakes can be helpful if it means you keep an eye out in the bush and you avoid antagonising one. Being overly anxious of heights is unhelpful if it stops you from taking a safe chairlift up a mountain where you would dearly love to ski. Our anxieties develop for many varied and sometimes complex reasons. Many of our anxieties are of the unhelpful variety.
Your version of anxiety may come with nausea, numbness or continuous negative and intrusive thoughts. Whatever its form, it’s generally unwanted.
Your likely perception of anxiety is that it’s awful and quite possibly scary. It can seem unpredictable and inexplicable. Your reaction is to avoid it at all cost, and of course, to avoid whatever you associate with the anxiety – certain places, people, situations, emotions.
Most people have a degree of anxiety around public speaking. Some would rather die than speak publicly and will do anything to avoid it, which of course reinforces and worsens the anxiety.
Others recognise that they’re experiencing anxiety; they are familiar with how it feels and are not scared off by it. They learn some tricks to better handle it. They ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. They survive. Their public-speaking anxiety is predictable and manageable. It diminishes with more and more exposure.
Certainly, it is not always so straightforward (and particularly not if the anxiety has become chronic) but the basic principles remain the same. Get to know your anxiety and you can shift your perception of it and your reaction to it. Here are some tips…
Become familiar with how you experience anxiety
Do you feel sick in the stomach on Sunday nights? Are you preoccupied with a meeting in the morning, running through negative scenarios in your head?
Or do you find that you have to excuse yourself from Friday night social drinks, feeling lightheaded and short of breath?
Notice triggers and patterns.
Identify it, name it.
Tell yourself, ‘I’m experiencing some anxiety, nothing new, I’ll survive, it’ll pass. It’s unpleasant and I don’t like it but it’s not going to stop me doing what I want to do.’
Don’t avoid situations.
Avoidance and non-exposure reinforce anxiety.
Enlist a friend or trusted colleague to assist you with preparation (e.g. for a meeting, interview or date).
Learn some breathing or relaxation exercises that you can practice regularly, before or during an anxiety provoking situation – to try to keep the fight, flight or freeze reaction in check.
Learn some skills that will assist you to deal with the situation (e.g. presentation skills, assertive communication, anger management, problem solving.)
Develop an understanding of your anxiety. You may or may not know what your anxiety is all about. Maybe you experienced a traumatic event that left you feeling unsafe. Or perhaps you are fearful of confrontation or anger (your own or others’). Relief and empowerment can come from gaining awareness. Furthermore, approaching your anxiety with a dispassionate observer’s stance can diminish it significantly.
Become less sensitive and reactive
This is really a continuation of each of the other tips.
When you get a handle on how your anxiety works and you don’t try to avoid it, it strikes less often and less severely. You become less sensitive to it.
When it does strike, you deal with it better, responding as you would wish rather than reacting before you even have a moment to think.
You may not feel quite ready to take that chairlift, make that presentation or say to a certain person, “We need to talk”. For now, try seeing your anxiety a little differently and commit in some small way to approach it and not avoid it.
Can you think of a way to take a step forward, or remember a time when you did?