The late actor Charlie Chaplin once remarked that
“life is a tragedy when seen in close up, but a comedy in long shot”.
Chaplin was talking about life as a whole but his statement is true when thinking about anxiety, the human firework that can reap destruction if not fizzled out.
What is anxiety?
Ask people who experience anxiety what it is and you’ll tend to get one of two responses:
“A pain in the ass that won’t go away” – we’ll call this the metaphorical definition.
“When I just think about something non stop and get an strong feeling in the pit of my stomach” – We’ll call this the sensory awareness definition.
A dictionary definition of anxiety is “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome”
In his book ‘My age of Anxiety‘, editor of The Atlantic, Scott Stossel notes that Americans collectively lose 321 millon days of work a year because of anxiety & depression.
He says 1 in 7 Americans report some kind of anxiety related disorder and doctors report anxiety as being one of the most frequent complaints of patients coming to their office.
Stossel points out that similar findings are reported in Britain as well, with the mental health foundation highlighting that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, with anxiety & depression being the most common.
How does Anxiety Work?
In order to show what happens when you experience anxiety it is worth briefly talking about how the mind works. We are response species. We respond to the ongoing stimuli from our environment via our senses (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, gustatory & olfactory). When the information gets filtered into the respective senses, the information goes through to the amygdala.
An almond shaped part of the brain, the amygdala has been labelled the ‘fear centre’ of the brain and its main job is to decipher very quickly whether immediate danger is present.
If danger is present (think young child running in front of the road) the amygdala signals for an immediate response called a ‘pre-conscious response’. Its called this because you don’t have to think about the response, you just do it (think brake suddenly).
If immediate danger is not present, but the information is deemed relevant, this information will go to other parts of the brain (one being the hippocampus) to determine (from our memory stores) how to respond to it.
The outcome of that process will come in the form of the feeling you experience and the narrative you think about.
When it comes to how anxiety works, anxiety is not an immediate response (as opposed to a phobia which is very immediate).
It is more of an ongoing process, so when we get information from our environment it triggers certain responses in the form of feelings and thought patterns that we label as anxiety.
So anxiety is a label we assign to certain feelings and thought processes in response to triggers from our environment.
What are people normally anxious about?
The fuel for someone’s anxiety can be different for different people. One person is anxious about the rising sea level, another is anxious about robots taking over the world. Yet overall you can sum up what people tend to be anxious about into 3 categories:
Whilst we can take intelligent guesses what may happen in the future, we don’t know for certain and in some cases the uncertainty of not knowing creates an anxiety.
Because the mind makes up scenarios of what could happen.
The anxiety of uncertainty becomes a problem because of what people commonly do in order to reduce the anxiety;
stay where they are because it’s familiar ground.
I have met many people who hate their job but stay there because it is familiar and any change is uncertain in its success.
How they are perceived by others
We like to be in tribes. Since humans have walked this land we have gravitated towards being in groups.
So it is understandable we should be concerned about how others view us. Of course we have no control over whether someone likes us or not, however that doesn’t stop us being anxious about how other people see us.
The whole reason the recent ‘no make up selfie’ campaign was so popular was because it was supposed to show the ‘real you’ behind all the make up. We tend to hide the ‘real me’ for fear of being rejected by the people around us…
”If they knew what I was really like they’d be shocked”,
“If people realised how out of my depth I feel, I wouldn’t be in this position right now”.
Factors outside of their control [The vulnerability that comes with lack of control]
There are some things we can control, such as how we react to things and what we decide to eat each day. However there are things that we have very little control over, such as natural disasters and the latest humanitarian crisis in the world. Despite the lack of control, it doesn’t stop it being a source of anxiety for people, due partly to 2 reasons:
1 – The uncertainty of where the problem leads to (“if there was a Tsunami there, its only a matter of time before….”)
2 – What it means (“What kind of world do we live in where stuff like this happens”)
When you begin to think what is in your control and what isn’t you may be surprised to find how much of your anxiety is built up of factors that are indeed outside of your control.
How to reduce Anxiety?
The Millionaire Magician Steve Cohen had a quote in his book ‘Win the crowd‘ that said,
“Anything you can control, you should control”
When reducing your anxiety you want to look at the factors that you can control rather than focussing on the things you can’t.
In this article I will share 3 factors within your control that can have an impact in reducing your anxiety.
Your environment plays a big part in whether you will experience anxiety. Your mind is a continual feedback loop of what comes in via your senses and what becomes part of your worldview.
If your environment contains triggers for what you tend to be anxious about, you will continually experience anxiety until you develop new ways of interpreting those triggers.
Two environmental factors that can create anxiety are:
How many of your feel sleep deprived? As the demands of life increases, our quality of sleep appears to decrease. The problem with this is that one of the functions of sleep is to recharge the body & mind and put problems into a more manageable perspective by going through REM sleep. This is where the phrases “sleep on it” originated.
If you think your sleep quality could be improved here are some key points to improve your sleep:
- No electrical near your bed, especially mobile phones
- Aim to get as little light into the room as possible.
- Look to wind down at least 45 minutes before you want to go to sleep
- Don’t have the room too hot. Slightly cold can be better.
Yes, the old ‘you’re the sum of the 5 people you hang around with’. But if you’ve ever been in your work staff room you realise this quote is true. Misery seeks misery and if you find you are surrounded by people who talk about all the bad things that are happening in the world, you run the risk of anxiety being close by.
Here are some key points if you have anxiety inducing friends:
- Recognise that your time with them creates an anxiety within you.
- Develop another section of friends that don’t have this trait about them. Joining a club of like minded people for example.
- Decide whether the value these anxiety inducing friends give you is worth the effect they have on you. If not, begin to distance yourself.
Author Charlie Hoem recently released a book called ‘Play it away‘ where he chronicles his experience of reducing his paralysing anxiety. One of the solutions he found was to simply play. To do activities he enjoyed regularly and enjoy the endorphin effect these activities created.
The problem I have noticed with the modern demands of work is, as soon as people get busy the first thing that gets sacrificed is their enjoyment time.
This is a mistake because regularly doing activities that you enjoy can put you in a frame of mind where you work with a clearer mind and less stress.
Here are some key points to build regular activities into your days:
- Make a list of all the activities you enjoy doing no matter how small
- Make a point of doing a couple of them in the week.
- Notice the effect it has on you after you complete the activity.
The author and anthropologist Nora Neale Hurston said it beautifully when she wrote “Once you wake up thought in a man, you can never put it to sleep again”.
Thinking is based on what you are paying attention to. Someone can think about losing weight as a painful struggle or an opportunity to look and feel better about themselves. An individual can see a career change as a risky move or an exciting new chapter in their life.
Our thoughts are our narrative to the world around us. They can have us focus on the things that make us Anxious, excited or indifferent.
Change involves changing the perspective on your worldview and what you are paying attention to.
Here are some key points you can use to improve your thinking:
- Notice the pictures you are making in your mind. People tend to be scared of public speaking because the image they make is of the audience looking bored and critical.
- Ask better questions. Instead of “what happens if I leave my job and I fail”, ask “What needs to happen in the first 6 months in order to feel secure”
- Feed your mind with rich content. Read, talk with interesting people, watch programmes challenge your viewpoint. All of these things fine tune your thinking forces it to work in a more functional way.
Anxiety does have its benefits. It can energise, it can focus your attention and the human body can handle small doses. However when you are experiencing a continual state of anxiety, it is time to reassess how you are living. Take the points mentioned in this article and notice what small tweaks you can make to reduce anxiety and increase enjoyment.
How about You? What Have You Found Useful in Reducing Anxiety?
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