Managing anxiety isn’t as straightforward as “you’re freaking out for no reason, just calm down.”
In my experience, we rarely freak out for “no reason.”
Most of the time, when we’re anxious, or when a panic attack hits, it’s triggered by a connection in our nervous system that is quite valid.
Our nervous system is not dumb. It doesn’t activate for the hell of it, or just to annoy us.
It IS the case that sometimes our nervous system OVERreacts to the threat in front of us— that it activates as if it’s being confronted with a much larger, more dangerous threat that resembled something in our past.
But we don’t have to blow off our anxiety reactions as “I’m freaking out over nothing.”
If we get into the habit of calling our anxiety attacks “freaking out over nothing,” we’re repeatedly telling our bodies and minds that the danger signals they are generating and receiving are “wrong.”
When the fact is, those signals aren’t necessarily “wrong.”
Mismatched to the occasion, maybe.
But not “wrong.”
Anxiety and fear serve a valuable evolutionary purpose. Animals that lack fear often find themselves in danger— and deeper in those situations than they’d realized.
We’re told over and over again that anxiety and fear are our enemies…when the truth is, they’re actually quite useful.
Yes, anxiety in particular can interfere with our activities of daily living…but it’s really important to acknowledge that anxiety fundamentally comes from an adaptive place.
Our nervous system is TRYING to keep us safe. It’s TRYING to protect us.
At some point along the way, our wiring may have gotten a little scrambled, and perhaps our early warning system— our fear/anxiety response— may be a little oversensitive.
We may be getting lots of air raid sirens in our heads that are being set off by pigeons, as opposed to bombers.
But our nervous system wants to keep us alive— so it’s actually designed to err on the side of “maybe I’ll sound the alarm, just in case.”
Don’t be mad at your nervous system. It’s exhausted and trying to do a good thing. It really thinks you’re in danger when it sounds the alarm.
On the other hand, it’s also a tremendously practical question to ask, what can I do to avoid being exhausted and burnt out because of the constant alarms my nervous system is raising?
First thing’s first: we have to separate anxiety signals from our responses to those signals.
Our brain and body sends us all kinds of signals every day.
A great deal of our cognitive energy every day goes to sorting out those signals— what they mean, and what we should do about them.
When our brain and body register that we have to go to the bathroom, most of us don’t immediately stop where we are and urinate. We acknowledge the signal, then we make a plan to find a bathroom, and only go when certain conditions are met.
A similar process happens dozens of times every day. We feel impulses triggered by our nervous system; but instead of reacting right away, we pick and choose the timing and sequence of our behavioral responses.
We can do the same thing when we get anxiety signals.
With anxiety signals, the task is somewhat more complicated, because the anxiety/fear system is designed to make us VERY UNCOMFORTABLE if we ignore its signals— which is part of why it is so successful at keeping us alive.
Our task, then, is successfully coping with those anxiety signals EVEN AS we pick and choose our behavioral responses.
That task is doable.
Not easy, but doable.
As usual, we’re back to investing in coping skills: grounding, containment, distraction, self-talk.
I know, I know. It’s not sexy.
But it gets the job done.
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