Think back to your early life experiences for a moment. The earliest period of your life you can remember. Do you remember being extremely afraid of new people or events? One study found that about 20% of healthy children feel this way. It’s something that could be seen even when they were infants. If you were one of them, and then you also went on to experience certain detrimental life events before or during your teenage years (about a third of these children do), there’s a good chance you went on to develop serious social anxiety.
Children with these symptoms also tend to be perfectionistic, look for constant approval or reassurance from others, and worry about things in several areas of their life, such as friends, sports performance, and family issues.
Is anxiety normal?
Having said that, it’s important to be clear on something. Anxiety is normal. Everybody experiences it. Great athletes describe actually looking at anxiety as their body’s way of telling them they are ready to perform. One study found that the average person worries for a total of about one hour every day. So, if anxiety is normal and everyone experiences it, why is it so problematic for some people and not others?
One explanation is the different ways people view anxiety. Using the above example, the athlete has a healthy relationship with anxiety. They see it as a normal, and even helpful, part of life. Which brings me to the key message of this post:
Worrying about worrying
Worrying about your worry is a good way to turn it into clinical anxiety.
People with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (about one in seven people are diagnosed with this disorder right now) typically feel like their worrying is out of control. There’s often a sense that their anxiety is overwhelming and that they’re not able to manage it. Often, when normal worrying turns into clinical anxiety, people become fearful of their anxiety and want to “push it down” or fight with it. This is actually a reasonable reaction. When we have problems in the outside world, fighting against it is often an effective strategy. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work with mental health problems.
What’s the point of anxiety?
It’s important to remember that we evolved to feel anxiety for a reason. It serves as an effective response to a perceived threat or danger. This is why people who are prone to anxiety often tend to think that something terrible is going to happen in the near future (e.g., back pain might automatically be interpreted as a symptom of cancer). When human beings are in a situation in which something that threatens our survival (directly or indirectly) is at foot, anxiety motivates us to be aware of the threat and to take action if needed.
For example, when walking through an area of land where dangerous animals were known to live, our ancestors might have felt anxious. Anxiety allowed them to be alert, looking-out for threats, and ready to fight or run away at the first sign of a threat.
The problem is that, in the world we find ourselves today, the things we interpret as threats don’t often require immediate physical reactions like running or fighting. So we’re, instead, left with an excess of cortisol floating around our body with nothing to do. To protect your core body, blood flow to your arms and legs decreases and, to reserve energy for when it might be needed, your digestive system slows. This is why, when we experience anxiety, we often experience a tightness or queasiness in our stomachs or lack of appetite.
So, much of our contemporary anxiety is a normal reaction to abnormal situations that didn’t exist when we evolved to experience anxiety. If you feel anxious delivering a Powerpoint presentation at work, running away or fighting the audience is not going to help your situation. Whereas it may have helped if your anxiety was in relation to a more immediate threat to your survival, like a sabre-toothed tiger.
This too shall pass
When you recognise that any anxiety you’re feeling is a normal part of being human and will naturally pass on its own, you’ll still feel anxiety, but you won’t feel anxiety about anxiety. You won’t worry about your worrying. This is easier said than done, but, when you can have this relationship with your anxiety, it will remain manageable and not negatively interfere with your life.
Image by Rima Xaros