Anxiety: Understanding Anxiety & Its Purpose
Hi, this is the first in a three part series focus on anxiety. And the goal here is to help you better understand the experience of anxiety so that you can begin to relate to it differently and ultimately navigate it more effectively. You may call it worry, stress, nerves, or discomfort, whatever the name, anxiety is a common emotion. So let's start by building a better understanding.
Like all emotions, anxiety has a felt bodily sense and emotional need and an action tendency. Our bodies and minds are intimately connected and so we feel our emotions and our bodies. For me, for example, I might feel nauseous if I'm anxious about a difficult conversation I'm about to have with somebody. Or I might get hot and flushed with my chest and neck getting all splotchy. When I'm anxious, speaking in front of groups of people, you might feel tingling in your fingers, tightness in your chest, shortness of breath or pain in your neck or shoulders.
Anxiety also has an emotional need. For example, if I'm anxious because I feel overwhelmed, the emotional need might be for clarity, space, or consideration. If my anxiety is tied to feeling unaccepted or insecure, the emotional need might be for connection, belonging, or respect. And anxiety comes with an action tendency, behavioral responses that follow the feeling. More often than not, people's action tendency with anxiety is to avoid because anxiety feels crummy.
Anxiety also has a function. At its best, anxiety can help us perform. We can exert ourselves in sports, we can focus where we need to be focused, sometimes we can get clarity from anxiety as well. In the short term at least, it readies us. It puts our bodies and minds on high alert in case we need to move quickly and it can even be protective. As modern humans, we're evolved to have sophisticated thinking skills and a rich, nuanced emotional experience, but there's also this part of us that's both evolutionarily basic and really strong. The part of us that's quickly keyed into potential danger. The part of us that took root when we were still living in caves just trying to make it to the next day. The tricky thing is that what once was essential to our survival, doesn't always serve us well in the modern world. As most of you have probably experienced at some point, anxiety can also get in our own way.
So what creates and perpetuates anxiety? First, you'll notice that I'm going to say this again and again, anxiety is a normal, common emotion. It's impacted by our temperament and it can be situational, or for some of us, chronic. When I say temperament, I'm referring to our personality traits that tend to be hardwired. Some of us seem to be hardwired towards wanting little change. You might crave routine, prefer concrete situations and relationships and have a high level of fear around negative consequences. Or you may be wired towards being a super feeler, highly sensitive and attuned to emotions, both your own and the experiences of others. These are all temperament traits that lend themselves to anxiety. Now, keep in mind, these traits can a hundred percent be harnessed for good. A really concrete thinker who likes routine might be capable of cultivating the kind of discipline that lends itself to thriving in a highly specialized career. A super feeler can channel their empathy into being a gifted teacher or counselor. On the other hand, these traits, if left unchecked, feed into unhealthy levels of anxiety.
Anxiety can be situational. There are times where being anxious just makes sense, during a big transition or the start of something new. I'm a little anxious today because I'm passionate about this topic and I don't want to screw up in a way that distracts from the message. I want to do well and I want others to think that I'm doing well. But anxiety can also be chronic. A result of a history of intense situational anxiety, temperament, or a mix of both. Chronic anxiety tends to get in the way of us living a full life in the way that we really want to live it.
So then the question becomes this. Should I change the way that I relate to my anxiety? Well, as a therapist, I like to think of it this way. A healthy relationship with anxiety keeps our perspective broad so that we can see our options. Unchecked anxiety keeps us from recognizing both perspective and potential. So if you're finding that anxiety is showing up in your life in a way that leads you to see fewer options in front of you, in a way that's leading you to say no to an increasing number of things in your day to day life, maybe it's time to consider a change.
In the next part of this series, you'll learn how to take the first steps towards navigating anxiety more effectively.