Anxiety: Why do we avoid it?
I’ve noticed in today’s society, it is very common for us to express having anxiety, but do we really understand it?
“I’m just a little bit anxious” “that makes me too anxious” “I’ve got anxiety”
There is a big difference between experiencing anxiety and being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder by a qualified professional (rather than google). However, today I’m just focusing on very common levels of anxiety that we all experience.
Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome”. However, I’d say we recognise anxiety faster through our bodies’ response than noticing our feelings. Notice you’re shaking? Need a wee? Butterflies in your stomach? Feel sick? That is your anxiety kickstarting your body.
As these physical responses are uncomfortable, we tend to associate anxiety with something bad, and thus avoid it. However, anxiety is necessary for our survival. Imagine if you didn’t get nervous walking out in front of a car? Or if you have to give a big presentation or exam but were so relaxed you didn’t bother prepping? Anxiety is really important.
As this feeling is uncomfortable, we tend to try to “control” it because “mind over body” right? Think positive thoughts right? I recently had my wisdom teeth out, for which (sadly) they no longer give sedation for. I could intellectualise the entire procedure – “I’m not in danger, it’s uncomfortable but not painful, you need to breathe and remain calm”. Regardless of this, I was intensely shaking and could not stop. Why? Because as much as I could rationalise the situation, my body was still responding to a threat. Our mind over body control is powerful, but limited. After this, I was exhausted and it was still 11am. I needed a well-deserved nap.
I think one of the main underestimations of anxiety, and why we also avoid it, is because how exhausting it is, and then we are surprised when we can’t work to the best of our ability afterwards. Tried to go back to work at your desk after giving a nerve-wrecking presentation and your brain refuses to cooperate? We need to give ourselves a break sometimes to calm down. Why?
Imagine you’re a zebra, eating some grass out on the planes of wherever, and you spot a lioness. You’re anxiety will sky rocket, and then the lioness walks the other way, and you go back to eating grass. You aren’t thinking about “what if she attacked” “I wonder if she had a sore paw” “I wonder if she will come back tomorrow”. You just eat your grass and enjoy it.
But, us humans have complex brains. Really helpful sometimes, other times not so helpful. If we have something anxiety provoking happen, instead of letting our anxiety return to pre-event levels, we typically keep it high for a while whilst we think through all possible options and pull apart how we responded. That adrenaline surge and brain energy is exhausting.
So how can I manage anxiety? There are things we can do to help our anxiety go down faster, and this will be individual to us all. I’m constantly being advised that yoga, pub or a hot bath is the answer – this works for some people, but not for me and probably not for others.
This post isn't the typical "top 5 ways to manage anxiety", because the first, most important step, is understanding your body’s reaction to anxiety, and not underestimating how exhausting this is. It is ok and important to feel anxious occasionally, and it’s even more important to be compassionate to yourself about it.
Something you could try doing is not denying the emotion in the first place, it is not a weakness and can actually be very informative. What is it about that situation that was so anxiety-provoking? Anxiety comes from a place of feeling threatened - whether this was physically, your reputation or social status, it doesn't matter which. Was it as bad as I thought? What can I hold onto for next time this happens? Even just asking yourself these questions takes energy. It is very important to carve out some time of your busy schedule for your brain and body to rest and recover. Maintaining a high level of anxiety, without adequate rest, can have consequences, including burn out. Self-care is your priority.
If you have concerns about your anxiety, please contact your GP or look into a self-referral for IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). If you want to use an online therapist, please check their credentials. Your workplace may provide a limited number of sessions with a therapist – usually found through occupational health.