Anxiety is something that everyone experiences at one time or another. The sensations of anxiety can come and go very quickly and only in situations that are intimidating or important. For example, if you are counting on a successful job interview to advance your career, you may tense up when the phone rings. You may have a quick surge of nervousness or fear while talking to the prospective employer and awaiting the answer.
Usually, once the experience is over, you find relief and are able to move on. You may not continually experience the worry or anxiety because the perceived threat is over. And when the body and brain does not perceive a threat, the anxiety symptoms tend to go away.
So, why does the anxiety show up in the first place? Why does the body find a job interview or other life event to be stressful? What is anxiety trying to tell you?This is a complicated question to answer. The general answer is… it depends. It depends on the individual’s genetic and social experiences. Nature vs. nurture are always considered when mental health professionals think about anxiety.
As a therapist in Rockland County, NY, I often explain to clients that anxiety is not their fault. Some people are more prone to anxiety than others. Some develop anxiety in childhood while others develop anxiety as teens or in adulthood. Despite when and how anxiety started for you, it can be helpful to get to know anxiety better. Have you ever asked yourself, “What is My Anxiety Doing for Me?”. If you haven’t, read on for some interesting facts.
What is Anxiety Trying to Tell You?
Anxiety Is Normal
There are many times when anxiety is a very normal process and can be helpful to you. It may not initially feel this way when you are in the midst of a huge anxiety wave. Anxiety symptoms can be truly overwhelming and often difficult to manage. The truth is that many anxiety sufferers just want to get rid of it very quickly. And who can blame this wish. However, this often leads to disappointment as anxiety is bound to come around again. And a big reason for this is that anxiety has aided in human survival.
Anxiety Can Be Adaptive
The fight, flight and freeze response are natural stress reactions that are built into our system. Our body is literally programmed to attend to danger in the environment to help us avoid harm. This is truly amazing! All of your body’s senses will tune into any potential threat and your body will begin to prepare for action.
For example, if you are walking around your neighborhood and are all of a sudden confronted by an unleashed and snarling dog, your body will have a response. It will send stress response signals to your large muscle groups which will accelerate your heart rate and bring more oxygen to these parts. Your breathing may become more rapid or shallow to try to increase oxygen levels. Your body may start to feel sweaty or clammy, feeling cold as most of the blood and oxygen is preparing your large muscle groups to engage in fight or flight mode. In this case, you may want to run away from the dog. However, another part of your instincts may come in, and instead you may freeze, staying put and not aggravating the dog. How you will respond will depend on many factors.
But, one thing is certain, your body is actually trying to prevent harm to your person. These initial sensations of rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, muscle tension, and panic are meant to guide you to safety.
Anxiety Can Help You Identify Your Values
When you suffer from anxiety, the fight, flight or freeze response meant to help you through potential threats become activated even when there is no real threat. Why? What is anxiety trying to tell you? You may be surprised that anxiety can help point to your values system.
Consider a situation in which you are gearing up for a presentation at your job. Just thinking about presenting in front of your boss may conjure up feelings of nervousness and images of you stuttering or your mind going blank. You may be sitting comfortably in your home but just the thought of this scenario can trigger a stress response. Ask yourself, “What is the anxiety trying to tell me?” It may be that you value having a good work ethic and providing helpful information to your colleagues. You may value being reliable and a good team member.
Being in touch with this can help guide you through the anxiety. You can begin to focus on these values and remind yourself that you will do your due diligence to prepare. You respect your colleagues and want to be a part of the team. The likelihood that you will completely fail is small. Instead of focusing on a catastrophic ending, you may think about the values you place on your work life and how you can behave in ways that align with them.
Drawing attention away from the threat and instead to your values can help you make healthy decisions. If you notice yourself consistently behaving in ways that do not align with your values, you can make changes as needed. For example, if you value honesty in friendships but have been avoiding a difficult conversation with a friend, you can ask yourself what is holding you back? Is there a way to share your truth in a positive and constructive way? Doing so may help to reduce the blocks built by anxiety. Identify your values and act in a way that feels good to you.
Anxiety And Positive Challenges
Feeling fear or worry about a new challenge is common. Sometimes we underestimate our abilities, thinking that we won’t do well or can’t succeed in something new. A little bit of worry or fear when confronting a new task or challenge can help you to evaluate your current strengths as well as weaknesses. We can’t perform 100% on everything, even if we want to.
Fear can be constructive when we are able to accurately perceive and estimate the challenge we are presented with. For example, hosting a first dinner event for your partner’s parents and extended family members may bring on anxiety. This would be particularly triggering for a person with social anxiety. Having to entertain people that are unfamiliar to you and also cook a great meal! Enough to increase anxiety. The fear of judgment and criticism may pose a challenge and you may consider to back out or avoid the gathering altogether. But, what if you use this opportunity to understand your anxiety response? You may remember that you value family relationships and that you love to cook.
Taking a step back to evaluate your fear can help you remember that you are actually a great cook! You may be quite skilled in the kitchen and tripling the recipe is something you can efficiently do. When you estimate the likelihood that you will completely fail as a host and receive criticism, you may determine that it is quite low. What is anxiety trying to tell you? What will happen if you focus instead on going through with the dinner and creating lasting family bonds? You automatically set yourself up to build the necessary confidence needed to work through challenges. And as a result, you may have a positive outcome.
Getting Through It
When you are confronted with something in your environment that invites a sense of anxiety, fear or stress, ask yourself what is anxiety trying to tell you? Is the anxiety response actually helping you in some way? If the answer is yes and you determine that there is no real life threat to your person and that you can practice calming strategies, use your support system and move ahead anyway, then I encourage you to do so.
If the answer is no and you decide that the anxiety is too much to overcome and is hindering your potential, consider reaching out for counseling. Anxiety can be incredibly unpleasant when the symptoms occur frequently and keep you from living a happy and fulfilled life. In counseling, we can begin the process toward healing.