The most common emotional issue I encounter in my clients is anxiety. Sadly, the incidence of anxiety is increasing dramatically: children today exhibit virtually the same degree of anxiety as did psychiatric patients 60 years ago! The reasons for this increase are many: more encounters with the unfamiliar as technology fosters change and broadens our horizons, greater workplace demands, less job security, far fewer of us turning to the soothing balms of religious affiliation and community involvement, and media that generally focuses on negative/alarming rather than positive/calming developments.
The first thing I try to get clients to understand is that most of us are “hard wired” to be anxious. Prehistoric man encountered life-threatening circumstances frequently: predators, hostile neighbors, food insecurity. Those who were more alert to / worried about those dangers were more likely to survive them. Over hundreds of thousands of years the human brain became wired to be extra sensitive to danger. But circumstances in the 21st century are far different, and our innate oversensitivity to anxiety is now detrimental - not just emotionally, but cognitively (thinking is more constricted and less creative when the thinker is anxious) and physically as well (anxiety releases adrenalin and cortisol hormones into the bloodstream, which are harmful if chronically present).
The next thing I focus on in dealing with anxiety-ridden clients relates to time. Most anxiety is about the future: What’s going to happen? When will it happen? What steps can I take to make it happen (or to prevent it from happening)? But there’s also anxiety about the past (Did I make the right decision? Could I have done more? Where did I screw up?), although the anxiety there relates to trying to discover the thing that “went wrong” so that it can be avoided in the future. The one place that anxiety does not exist is in the present (you can be worrying in the present, but not about anything that is presently happening - you simply have an experience of whatever is going on).
Worry, the specific cognitive manifestation of anxiety, can be described as a process undertaken by our minds to retrieve undesirable events from the past or the future and recreate them in the present.
Please re-read the sentence above – it is absolutely fundamental to an enlightened, productive view of worry. Specifically, if creating the undesirable outcome in your mind allows you to take steps to prevent it or reduce its impact, then the worry is productive. If not, it is useless and counterproductive. In fact, you are actually creating in your mind an undesired outcome, or an unwanted experience.
Is there any rational basis for anxiety? After all, to many it feels like anxiety will help prepare them for a negative turn of events. The problem is that the negative turns of events we usually worry about are very unlikely to happen, and so we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying over nothing.
Can it ever serve a valuable function? Yes. A little anxiety can be valuable in motivating action, but a little anxiety can easily cascade into overanxiety; “what ifs” tend to trigger more “what ifs.” Often anxiety will seem to allow us to figure out ways to better control the future, but seldom in fact does.
If you feel you might be someone who is overly anxious, I can suggest a test that will help you get a handle on exactly how anxious you are. Set the alarm on your smartphone to go off every waking hour for a few days. When the alarm sounds, write down what you were thinking about in that moment. Try to pick a period of time that creates a representative level of anxiety. By reviewing the perhaps 40 - 50 thoughts you will have recorded you can see just how much of your time you spend worrying. The client who most recently undertook this exercise discovered that over 95% of her thoughts were anxiety-related!
In the next post I will write about some fairly simple ways to deal with anxiety by reducing its impact and duration; I'm calling it Anxiety 102.