If you struggle with anxiety, you’re not alone. It’s rampant. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States, ages 18 and older, every year. Although anxiety is highly treatable, only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.¹
One of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety is that it’s interchangeable with worry. Not so. Anxiety is an emotion. Worrying is a thought process. Anxiety is a normal reaction to feeling out of control. Worrying is a coping strategy, albeit an ineffective one. Anxiety is unavoidable. Worrying is a choice.
It saddens me that so many struggle with incessant worrying, interfering with sleep, disrupting their productivity, making them depressed. It’s so unnecessary! You probably don’t believe me. You probably think I’m selling you “a bill of goods.” But I have conquered worrying and teach others everyday how to do the same.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. The sensation you know as anxiety is your body revving up to protect you from a threatening situation. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but so is touching a hot stove. It’s there for a reason. It’s how most people cope with anxiety that’s the problem.
Anytime we feel out of control, we experience anxiety. The more emotionally invested we are in the outcome, the more anxious we feel. If you’re going on a job interview, you would probably feel anxious about making a good impression. If you start getting severe headaches, you would probably feel anxious until you got answers from your doctor. If you’re going on a first date, you would probably feel anxious until you got past the awkward introductions.
Through my years of practice, I have found anxiety is the result of three fears: harm to self or loved ones, rejection and failure. People worry because it gives them a false sense of control. By anticipating the worst, they reason, they’re more likely to avoid it and less likely to be disappointed. But if you lay in bed worrying all night what are you accomplishing? You’re not doing anything to fix the problem.
Consider my analogy of a hand on a hot stove. If your brain doesn’t tell you which part of your body is hurting, you don’t know to pull your hand away! Anxiety is no different. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling out of control about?” That you’ll lose your job and become homeless? That you’ll appear awkward and no one will like you? That you’ll be a bad parent and your child will be taken away from you? These are some of the fears I’ve heard from patients.
Then identify what’s in your control. The more you do what’s in your control, the less anxious you’ll feel. Once you’ve done everything in your control, worrying serves no productive purpose but to make you feel worse. Also, when you worry, you’re either anticipating something bad happening or rehashing something that’s already happened. In other words, you’re not focused in the present moment. Thus, worrying interferes with concentration and productivity, potentially undermining the very thing you’re trying to avoid.
Worrying also undermines happiness. Simply put, you can’t be happy if your mind isn’t focused in the present. Imagine going on a vacation, but the entire time, you’re thinking about work, bills, and chores waiting for you when you return. You wouldn’t feel like you had a vacation.
This is where the technique, mindfulness, is invaluable. It teaches you how to redirect your attention away from worry, back to what we’re doing in the present moment. What usually gets in the way of mastering this technique is not poor concentration. It’s expected you will get distracted. Rather it’s the fear of letting go of an almost magical association in our minds between worrying and preventing bad outcomes.
2 Comments Add yours
I’m wide awake reading this in the middle of the night. I’m hooked on your insights & the clean way you separate “worrying” from “anxiety”.
Thanks, Bryan! I just want to help, so I hope you’ll share/retweet. Anxiety is a very complex problem and requires a variety of approaches: cognitive; behavioral; and insight-oriented. I always say, “If it were easy, you would have figured it out by now.” More to come!