Updated: Jul 2, 2021
It's a simple question, but an important answer, as anxiety is something that impacts the lives of all living people. Anxiety is a normal physiological reaction to abnormal situations, especially those our brain views as a potential threat. It is a state of worry or concern, one with behavioural and emotional components. Our brain is a clever organ. It reads information from inside and outside and it sends signals to our body to react – fight, flight, freeze or appease. We all feel anxiety. It is an absolutely normal emotion like all other emotions and it has its functions. The problem is when anxiety impacts us on a daily basis and makes it hard to carry out our usual activities. In this blog, I will share practical steps on how to reduce our anxiety, using tried and tested methods proved to be effective. But first, let's consider the more useful benefits of this emotion.
What is the positive function of anxiety?
Like all emotions, anxiety is indicating to us that there must be a threat present. Therefore it tells us that we have to do something about the situation. When our brain detects the threat, we don't need our cognitive (thinking) functions – we need to react quickly without thinking. For example, if I am sitting on a beach looking after my kids while they are swimming and I notice a big wave coming towards them, I am not going to sit and think logically – what is the probability that there could be danger? Pros and cons of reacting to the trigger? No, I would not do that. I react immediately and run to save them. That is one of the positive functions of anxiety, to protect yourself and others.
Another function is to communicate to others that there is a danger. If I see a fire, my instant reaction is to scream for help. Anxiety also communicates to us about our mental state. If you notice that you are feeling anxious more than usual, for no obvious reason, you need to think about what needs to change in your environment to reduce anxiety. For example, maybe I am working long hours; maybe the work environment is not suitable for me. Maybe I need to reduce the amount of work I do. Maybe I need to ask for help. Despite how uncomfortable the emotion may feel, we shouldn't forget about the positive functions of anxiety.
How do I know that I feel anxiety?
Often we have physical symptoms strongly related to anxiety. Most of very generic and can include butterflies in the stomach, sweaty hands, shaking legs and hands, breathlessness, heart racing. Thought racing is also common - you can’t concentrate on one particular thing or become hypervigilant (increased alertness to things within or around you).
Even if the perceived threat is the same for a group of people, each individual can show a different response to anxiety. Some freeze and find it impossible to move, like a deer caught in the headlights, hoping it'll pass. Others take flight, hoping to outrun the feeling of worry. Whereas others try and tackle it straight on, to fight it. All of these reactions are perfectly normal.
What practical skills can I use to help manage my anxiety more effectively?
When you notice the physical symptoms described above, you can say to yourself “stop” and allow yourself to have some space to assess the situation.
Check the facts – am I under a real threat or is it a perceived threat – has my mind misinterpreted the situation? Our mind is very clever – it reacts to our thoughts in the same way that it reacts to a real threat. Describe to yourself in a factual way what physical symptoms you are experiencing. For instance, “my heart is racing, I feel butterflies in my stomach”. Just stick to the facts about what you have noticed in your body.
Normalise that what you are feeling is anxiety. And it is OK to feel anxiety. After these steps, your anxiety level will go down. Now you gain control over your thinking and see what anxiety tells you to do – to run away, fight, freeze, etc. If there is a real threat, these are OK but if not, then do the opposite of what your anxiety tells you. For instance, when you feel anxiety your body is “closed” and shoulders up and tight. After assessing the situation carefully and there is no threat, we relax the shoulders, open the chest, open the hands, concentrate on breathing in and out. (Note: When animals feel relaxed they keep their chest “open” to send a message to the brain that there is no threat, and we are trying to do exactly the same with our body.) So the whole body has to be “open”.
Notice there is an urge to run away from the situation when there is no need to do so; again we need to do the opposite action to our urge, by staying in the situation. We are accepting that at this moment I am experiencing anxiety. Finally, change the way you think about the situation: what is the worst that could happen? What would be the worst-case scenario? Reframe the way you think about the situation and continue checking the facts rather than relying on interpretation.