What is anxiety?
Anxiety involves being preoccupied with negative thoughts about the future. Unlike depression, which usually involves ruminating about things that have already happened, with anxiety our minds act as negative forecasters, usually predicting disasters. There are physical symptoms that often accompany anxiety such as tightness in your chest, your heart racing, headaches, an upset stomach, sweaty palms, etc. Anxiety often causes us to avoid situations that we are particularly worried about. For example, when people have social anxiety and worry about the judgments of others, they often respond by declining invitations and avoiding social situations. When people have anxiety about their work performance, they might procrastinate until they have no choice but to rush to complete a task or they might overwork and never take breaks. Anxiety can also disrupt our sleep; if you find your mind racing at night when you’re trying to fall asleep, this might be a signal that you are experiencing anxiety.
What causes anxiety?
In some ways, anxiety is evolutionarily adaptive. Our ancestors on the plains in Africa who ran away when they heard a rustle in the bush without waiting to see if that rustle was caused by a lion, survived and passed their genes on to us. With that said, it's important to distinguish between anxiety that's based on real threats and anxiety that we create through our thoughts. Some anxiety is an important signal that we might not be safe and should be listened to (e.g. getting an icky feeling about the guy who’s offering to walk you to your car after you leave the club). Other kinds of anxiety can be caused by worrying about things that likely will not come to fruition (e.g. thinking “If I speak up in a meeting at work and I say the wrong thing everyone will think I’m a complete idiot”). When we get caught up in negative thoughts, our body responds as if we are in danger and we become physiologically activated (e.g. heart racing, stomach ache, headaches etc.).
How to manage anxiety
1. Work to understand what’s causing your anxiety
Although I don’t recommend analyzing your anxiety in the middle of it, once you are calm, it can be helpful to reflect on the underlying fears or beliefs that are causing it. For me, anxiety is most often connected to romantic relationships. Through therapy, I learned that my fear that I am unlovable drives my relationship anxiety. At any hint of rejection, my mind pulls me down a rabbit hole of questions about what I did wrong and how the person I’m dating must not like me or be preparing to leave me. Understanding this core fear and being able to challenge it has been an essential part of me healing from anxiety.
Therapy can be very helpful with this process. If you do not feel ready or able to seek therapy you might try talking to a close friend or family member about what tends to make you anxious and what your fears are. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about it yet, try journaling and seeing if you can identify the themes of your worries.
Understanding the underlying causes of our anxiety can help us to be more compassionate with ourselves as we work to overcome it. Most of us developed negative core beliefs and fears because of difficult or traumatic experiences in the past. Anxiety can develop as a method of self-protection. For example, your anxiety might protect you from rejection or disappointment by causing you to avoid a relationship or applying to a job. In the long run, these strategies don't protect us from pain and often keep us from living vibrant lives, which is why we’ve got to learn to do things differently.
2. Let go of your negative thoughts
Believing everything that your mind says, especially the negative and self-critical things, is unhelpful. In therapy, when I’m encouraging clients to let go of their negative thoughts, they often argue that they don’t want to let their thoughts go because they believe they are true. I encourage you to shift away from focusing on whether or not your thoughts are true, to considering whether or not holding on to your thoughts is helpful. Overly critical thoughts often make us feel bad and keep us from doing the things that would help us improve and feel better.
Exercise to let go of thoughts: Identify one of the most negative things you say to yourself and repeat the sentences below. See if you notice any difference.
- Start by saying the negative statement (preferably out loud) and dwell on it for a few moments.
- Next say: “I’m having the thought that [Insert your negative statement here].” Dwell on this for a few moments.
- Next, say: “I notice I’m having the thought that [Insert your negative statement here]” dwell on this for a few moments.
Research shows that regular meditation can help to reduce anxiety. Meditation can serve as an antidote to anxiety because anxiety is caused by getting caught up in thoughts and worries about the future and meditation is the practice of being in the present and letting go of thoughts.
Meditation helps to strengthen our ability to let go of negative thoughts and increases our ability to be in the moment. There are a number of ways to meditate (e.g. sitting meditation, walking meditation, yoga, etc.) and if you are interested in trying meditation, I recommend checking out Headspace, an app that provides guided meditations.
I know that my anxiety will likely come and go throughout my life. However, going to therapy, understanding the causes of my anxiety, letting go of negative thoughts and meditating have significantly reduced my anxiety and helped me to manage it effectively when it arises. I hope that these suggestions will help all of you as well.