Anxiety. That's a word that fills many of us with dread and trepidation. But at the same time, it can also make us laugh. I'm sure many of us who grew up in the 90's can remember that infamous scene in American Pie, where an encounter with performance anxiety resulted in some rather unfortunate premature expulsions.
So what is anxiety really? Regardless of it being good or bad, anxiety is often experienced as a series of bodily reactions. A racing heart, rapid breathing, breaking out into cold sweat, clammy palms and that urge to throw up are just some of the many ways our body reacts to anxiety. You can only imagine what its like running around with anyone of these symptoms, let alone all of them. And yet, there are those amongst us who suffer these on a regular basis.
On a more cerebral level, anxiety is essentially the fear of the unknown. Our minds predict the possible outcomes, and then our body naturally reacts to it. The problem lies in the fact that our mind does a really great job at creating fantastical ideas that may or may not come true. The more critical the event we're waiting for, the more our thoughts can get away from us.
Don't get me wrong though, anxiety actually does have a very real and useful application. Think back a few millennia, and imagine yourself trekking around the jungle looking for some nice pieces of fruit to go with your dinner for the night. You turn a corner, where lo and behold, you come face to face with a hungry looking tiger. What do you do? Well, logic dictates that you could either a) try and fend off the beast or b) run as fast you can the way you just came. This is what we call the 'fight or flight' response, a response system hardwired into most any animal, us included.
Those symptoms that we talked about? They are essentially your body preparing to either fight, or run away. Our heart starts pumping fast to move the blood. We begin to breathe rapidly to get enough oxygen into our system. We start sweating to ensure our body is cool. And our feet and hands feel cold because our body pulls blood to the essential parts like our liver, heart, and lungs.
Fast forward to 2014, tigers and bears are pretty hard to come by (which is pretty sad, but that's a whole different rant altogether). So nowadays, are 'tigers' and 'bears' have transformed into bosses screaming at us, the traffic jams we face daily, forgetting our partners' birthdays and the like. Regardless of what threats we face, our bodies automatically go into full on survival mode, engaging our fight or flight response. Its one thing to fight or run away from a tiger, but a different thing altogether when facing down our boss who's on our case for missing a deadline. The phrase blown out of proportion takes on a whole new meaning in this case.
Whilst anxiety is more often than not seen in a negative light, there is such a thing as positive or helpful anxiety. In my practice, I often find myself helping clients distinguishing between good and bad anxiety. The most straightforward example is the anxiety you feel when walking through a dodgy neighbourhood or a dark alley somewhere. The anxiety is there to tell you to keep your guard up, and to increase your chances of survival. Another example would be the anxiety you feel when you're preparing for a competition. The antsy feeling just before a match keeps you primed, limber, and ready to go out and kick some serious butt.
But at the end of the day, regardless of what anxiety you experience, its important that we learn how to manage it. Left to its own devices, anxiety has the potential to shut you down. So it's absolutely vital that we be able to master it and use it for our own benefit.
In learning to manage our anxiety, the first step would be to recognize what anxiety is like for you. For some, it could be butterflies in our bellies, for others, it's the fact that our hands and feet become instant popsicles. Recognizing when we become anxious is important because by becoming aware of our anxiety, we are then able to do something about it. Consciously ask yourself, “What's making me nervous?”. If its something you can actively engage and do something about, do so. Remember that anxiety is primarily a fear of the unknown, so when you're able to tackle the problem head on, anxiety can be reduced.
For those things that you're not able to deal with immediately, remind yourself that whatever fantastical scenarios you create for yourself, it may or may not come true. Think about the best case scenario, than the worst, and more often than not, what actually happens is somewhere in between the two. Sometimes, its as simple as telling yourself to wait and see, rather than coming up with another scenario to get yourself worried. Instead, get off your butt, and start preparing so that when something does happen, you're good and ready to go.
Finally, never underestimate the benefits of doing. Anxiety is inherently played out in your mind, where each and every scenario is played to death. You'd be amazed by how much better you feel when doing something instead of incessantly worrying. Go for a walk, talk it out with someone, or take a nap. By doing something, anything, you get your mind out from getting stuck in ruminate, and occupy it with something more beneficial to you.
So is anxiety good or bad? Honestly, anxiety is anxiety at the end of the day. You make of it what you will! Anxiety really isn't that bad after all when you think about it.