Fear is useful, but anxiety is often a lying son-of-a-gun. Fear is what you feel when faced with an actual threat to your life or health. Anxiety is a thought about something that might be a threat sometime in the future, maybe. See the difference?
Suppose you’re on a hike in the forest. You come around a bend in the trail and see a bear. It turns to you and stands up. That feeling you get? It’s fear. This is an actual threat to your life, and your body is preparing to face that threat.
Suppose, instead, that you’re hiking in the forest and there is no bear. But you’re worried that you will see a bear. That feeling is anxiety, and most of the time it is not your friend.
Notice I said “most of the time.” Anxiety is necessary and helpful at times, but most of us are pretty bad at recognizing when and how to best use it. Let’s think of it this way: The only reason you exist is because your ancestors figured out how to avoid danger long enough to reproduce. How did they do that? Well-honed fear/anxiety circuits and the ability to relax them long enough to obtain food and shelter, build community and, uh, “get busy” with their partners.
When it’s useful
One of my cats is deathly afraid of thunderstorms. At the first crack of lightning or thunder, he’s off in his hidey hole, and you will not see him for the duration of the storm. But as soon as it’s over? He’s back to his normal self. Eating, playing, etc. He’s not nervously pacing at the window wondering if the storm is coming back. He has moved on.
Mammalian nervous systems are intricate and finely tuned. We have basically two channels — the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic is engaged when we perceive a threat, and its job is to charge us up to fight or flee. Heart rate and breathing rate increase; digestive and reproductive functions slow down; vision and hearing ranges narrow, and there is often an urge to do something with the excess energy we feel.
The job of the parasympathetic nervous system is basically everything else. It decreases heart rate and breathing, relaxes muscles and allows functions like digestion and reproduction to resume. (If you have trouble remembering which system is which, I use this memory aid: the sympathetic is speedy and the parasympathetic is peaceful).
We function better and more happily when we have parasympathetic dominance — that is we are in the peaceful mode more often than not. If we stay in sympathetic dominance when there is no current threat, we have trouble sleeping, relaxing, enjoying ourselves. We snap at people and feel squeezed all the time. We may even develop panic attacks or agoraphobia.
Let’s go back to my hiking example. It is useful in bear country to have a small amount of anxiety about bears, if this anxiety leads you to take appropriate actions such as buying bear spray (yeah, that’s real) and learning how to use it, storing your food appropriately while camping, etc. If it leads you to avoid hiking altogether, and hiking is something you value and enjoy, then anxiety isn’t helping you, it’s constricting your life.
A little bit of anxiety helps performance. If you’ve ever wandered into a restaurant for a late lunch, and you’re the only customer there, you may notice that the service is surprisingly slow. Why? The staff are too relaxed. A little anxiety makes us move faster and more efficiently. Too much makes us run around like Chicken Little, unable to take effective action.
Controlling the “dose”
Anxiety management is not anxiety control. It’s learning to live with, not get rid of, something that can be very useful. Staying in the useful anxiety “window” is key, and here are some ideas on how to do it:
First, it’s important to drop the belief that you can avoid anxiety entirely through some magic formula. You can’t, and you wouldn’t want to for reasons stated above. The key is learning to act with anxiety instead of from anxiety.
Second, you need to learn to notice and experience your feelings, even the unpleasant ones. So many people don’t recognize anxiety building because they’ve dissociated from their bodies. They’ve bought the cultural message that uncomfortable feelings are bad, so they jump right to trying to fix, manage and avoid; or they act out in anger because of their discomfort. Mindfulness training can help you recognize when anxiety is starting to build in your body and make effective choices about what to do with it.
Third, you need tools to use in the moment if anxiety is overwhelming your ability to be effective. Relaxation skills are important here, as is the ability to use them while in traffic or in a board meeting without having to exit the situation. The key is to practice them in the moment, over and over until you can use them consistently. Such skills mainly focus on muscle relaxation and can be learned in a few minutes.
I would love to hear from people who have found effective ways to live with anxiety. You can also click “Follow” and input your email address to get notified when new blogs are posted. I welcome any questions, as well.
Now go for a hike or do something else you enjoy. Life is short, my friends.