Like all aspects of nature, anxiety is a neutral thing. It is our perception which defines natural occurrences as good or bad; modern society often builds anxiety to be a negative element in our lives, constructing a world in which those who experience anxiety must have something wrong with them. Yet, anxiety itself is an evolutionary tool which can aid us in ways beyond its most primitively defined. This occurs when we are able to reframe our relationship with anxiety. I’ve spent the better half of my personal and professional life studying ways in which humans produce excellence while working with, what we are taught to be, malfunctioning cognitive processes.
I have had a unique relationship with anxiety since the age of six. Unlike what many Westerners assume when they think of the disorder, my anxiety saved my life time and again growing up; for a while in my tumultuous childhood, it became a baseline for not just performing but existing. Therefore, it wasn't seen as a hindrance, but a gift, and I began to discover ways to use anxiety to enhance areas of my life other than those regarding safety, i.e. athletics, academia, the arts, etc. Without a doubt, I have also seen how, when resisted, these elevated states of awareness become uncomfortable and often scary, sometimes leading to a full-blown panic attack and long-term chronic pain.
“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning. But fear is your best friend. Fear is like fire. If you learn to control it, you let it work for you. If you don’t learn to control it, it’ll destroy you and everything around you.”
- Mike Tyson
Everyone experiences worry and anxiety, but some individuals begin to experience incorrect levels of anxiousness stemming from incorrect stressors at incorrect times. It evolves into a disorder when these spikes in fight-or-flight become chronic, irrational, and disrupt or impair our day-to-day lives. The greatest antidote to uncomfortability when experiencing anxiety is knowledge: understanding the different dimensional aspects of anxiety, biological, psychological, and spiritual causes as well as observing your own triggers, habits, and motivations.
Figuring out where to begin addressing the topic of anxiety alone can be overwhelming and frustrating. My hope putting together this article is that it serves as a guide for cognitively reframing how you perceive your relationship with anxiety and the topic in general.
What is Anxiety
Chronic anxiety happens when we or our nervous system stops living in the present and begin to get overwhelmed with potential past and/or future occurrences. This can be caused by life events, thinking styles, and evolutionary or biological factors.
The part of our brains behind this phenomenon is our amygdala, a small, almond-shaped set of neurons in the limbic system deep within our temporal lobe. The amygdala functions to keep us alert to danger, especially threats to our survival. During these moments, it sounds an alarm by outputting neurochemicals that prepare your body to deal with the threat. Breathing quickens, heart rate increases, muscles tense, and blood flow evacuates the torso to supply your arms and legs with more oxygen in order to fight or flee. The neurochemical is epinephrine, commonly known as adrenaline.
When faced with a threat to our survival, this evolutionary tool is invaluable. The trouble begins when our amygdalae misinterprets what things are a threat to us. Often, individuals suffering from anxiety disorders have become caught in the riptide of a process called fear learning, when the amygdala has grown hypersensitive to triggers and phobias that are not truly threats and overpowers the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which allows us to reason.
Safety learning or exposure therapy is so effective for people suffering from these disorders because avoidance behaviors, usually cognitive avoidance, feeds into fear learning. By avoiding the trigger that our amygdala has singled out as a threat, we are reinforcing that response. Through this method of avoidance, one’s anxiety goes down initially, but the amygdala interprets this as confirmation that it’s initial assessment of the potential threat was accurate. Consequently, long-term levels of anxiety begin to increase.
“A species that fears rightly increases its chances of survival.”
- Charles Darwin
Anxiety in and of itself is not a negative thing. Like an evolutionary superpower, anxiety protects us from harm. While severe anxiety disorders are a nightmare, there are upsides to being an anxious-prone individual if we learn how to navigate the physical and mental symptoms and harness the emotional ones.
It can alter our perspectives. Certain situational anxieties allow us to pinpoint what is important in our lives. One could also argue that having healthy doses of anxiety these days is a sign that an individual is more in tune with the fact that shit is off in our modern societies.
Anxiety can aid in performance. Some of the greatest students and athletes suffer from different levels of anxiety while taking tests or competing in sports as adrenaline can serve as a natural way of achieving hyper-focus. However, there is a tipping threshold in which anxiety begins to hinder performance, thus the crucial factor to take advantage of the positive aspects is by being able to keep anxiety levels in check.
It is also often found in individuals with leadership roles as we think cautiously when making decisions, take into careful consideration the possibilities of multiple different outcomes, and tend to be good problem solvers. Experiencing anxiety lends to individuals being more empathetic, causing them to note how our choices affect others.
In certain cases, anxiety can act as a superpower. High potential individuals are natural achievers, the move-makers. Enthusiastic, analytical, and fortitudinous, high potential individuals are driven towards challenges we find interesting that allow us to express themselves in an authentic way. Under the right circumstances, these individuals thrive - though there are drawbacks to this mindset.
While, with age, many high potential people learn where to place our focus, create priorities, and navigate the workings of our minds, we can often become overwhelmed by the floods of ideas we experience, hopping from project to project, working nonstop, without much to show for it.
Fear of not being enough is another common issue among the high potential crowd. We have cultivated a society which fears pain - and where there is fear of pain, there is substantial room for anxiety. This form of anxious insecurity can be used as fuel by high potential individuals as a fear-based motivation to charge forward. This can work - until we burn out in a passionate blaze. At its core, this insecurity is crippling, locking us into a downward cycle of inaction and suffering. And despite these fiery burnouts, many high potential individuals are reluctant to change their fear-based motivators, fearing that we might not be able to maintain our level of accomplishment without it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our brains run twice as far on clean fuel compared to this toxic alternative. This is powerful knowledge for high potential individuals as it lets us feel safe enough to risk big and unshackles us to create from a place of authentic expression instead of self protection. Therein lies the true freedom for move-makers as trying to meet everyone else’s standards is, on its own, an exhausting task; we can get twice as much accomplished as there is no need to prove ourselves day-to-day and focus on bigger, longer-term projects.
Re-aligning Our Relationship with Anxiety
Before carrying on with the tangible tips and mental exercises, we must quickly address the differences between schools of thought regarding emotions and anxiety.
The most prevalent studies on the topic often focus on two major players, the East and West, specifically focusing on the United States and China. Time and again, we find that anxiety and other mood disorders are less common in the East than West; the possibility of developing a mood disorder in the U.S. is about 30%, 20% tying in to major depressive disorders, and only 5% in China, 2% being major depressive disorders.
These numbers, however, do not indicate that Easterners experience more happiness than Westerners, as Americans self-report some of the highest levels of happiness among other Western cultures, such as Canada and Australia. China and other Asian countries like Japan and Korea report happiness ratings as neither extremely happy nor extremely unhappy, hovering the neutral middle. This cross cultural phenomenon has baffled psychologists for years. Countries like the U.S. have substantially larger numbers of individuals experiencing anxiety and depression but also report high levels of subjective well-being. On the other side of the world, countries like China experience less mood disorders but appear to experience less happiness as well.
For decades, most social psychologists believed this occurred due to anxiety and depression being under reported in Asia; this school of thought assumed that the stigma against mental illness was so intensive that Easterners were translating their psychological symptoms into physical ones, such as headaches, stomach aches, and insomnia. However, there is no detailed evidence to support this theory.
In addition, the rates of schizophrenia in Eastern and Western cultures is extremely similar, thus suggesting no reporting bias despite being highly stigmatized. And so, today it is proposed that the difference in emotional disorders is due to how Easterners and Westerners perceive and respond to emotions.
The Western world often views life from an analytical perspective- as black and white, us versus them, good versus evil, happiness versus sadness. The habit of processing our lives into mutually exclusive categories isolates events, objects, and other people from the broader context of our existence. This leads us to seeing the world from an independent perspective, a free agent simply interacting with external situations.
The Eastern world drives from a much more comprehensive and integrated motivation, viewing things in a holistic light. As with Yin-Yang, they expect opposites to coexist. This allows them to view themselves as interdependent when interacting with others and the environment around them in respect to the broader context of life.
Three fundamental differences in perspective:
1. Emotions are contextual. Westerners tend to embody their emotions, thinking of these feelings as arising from themselves. Easterners, on the other hand, view emotions as messengers informing them of their status via the surrounding situations. In this light, tangible choices can be made to alter the contexts of your situation, thus changing your emotions. This slight distancing of emotions allows Easterners to better regulate and navigate. You can do something about these feelings.
2. Emotions are constantly changing - and changeable. Western society views on emotions as arising from a fixed self: individuals who identify as happy must disregard negative experiences as an anomaly, not a part of who they truly are. Eastern cultures see the self as well as emotions as fluid, always changing, all a part of the human experience. They, like all else, are temporary.
3. Emotions co-occur. Too often happiness and sadness are pitted as opposites by Western cultures and so seen as mutually exclusive. We avoid sadness and other feelings perceived as negative as we feel they set us back from our pursuit of happiness. In the Eastern world, contradictory emotions can be felt simultaneously- always some dark in light and some light in dark. These feelings do not preclude happiness.
Let’s consider ways in which these cultural differences in perception affect common behaviors that individuals engage in when experiencing emotions like sadness: suppression and rumination.
Suppressing and ruminating negative emotions is almost never a good idea. Both Western and Eastern cultures engage in these behaviors, yet the outcomes are generally different. In the Western world, we cope with negative moods by retreating into our independent worlds and finding things with which to suppress them, in turn, only increasing the likelihood of submerging further into depressive states. Easterns also suppress emotions, but when these states are felt creeping in, remaining socially active in common, which in turn, can improve moods.
In terms of rumination, the negative emotions that nag and consistently run through our minds cause Easterners to seek solutions to problems; while Westerners often fall into a spiraling cycle of negative thoughts while trying to sort through these “wrong” feelings.
Our psyches are permeated by the cultures from which we hail, ingrained from a young age, but it is important to know that we are not captive of our specific society’s worldview. As humans, we grow by opening ourselves to considering other perspectives and selectively adopting worldviews that tailor well to our ideal lives. You sample different lifestyles, hobbies, diets, routines, etc. until we find the ones that correctly align with our purpose and calling.
Of all the superpowers mankind possesses, free will is by far the most powerful. This is the core of certain stoic philosophies championed by Epictetus, Marcus Arelious, etc. Of all the choices we make, the most powerful one is the way we decide to see ourselves. Self image defines everything from careers we choose, people we marry, how we eat, how we spend Saturday nights, how we react in a crisis, and how we deal with stress and pressure.
Your perspective on anxiety has the power to shape how it impacts you. Viewing stressful events as challenges, rather than threats, can help reap a surge of energy from our anxiety. But first, we must realign our relationship with anxiety, getting far away as possible from the victim mentality and stepping into our own power.
Thought Patterns and Cognitive Distortions
Those prone to anxiety usually engage in some form of unhelpful or cognitively distorted thinking, which reinforces a negative thinking pattern or emotion. The first step in approaching a situation from a healthy, rational place is learning to identify unhelpful thought behaviors. By confronting them again and again, they begin to diminish and we are able to address situations from a balanced standpoint.
Common Cognitive Distortions:
All-or-nothing Thinking - allowing things to only exist on the ends of the spectrum; living in black-or-white mindset
Jumping to conclusions- this can include Predicting the Future and Mind Reading
Catastrophizing - blowing things out of proportion
Filtering - having tunnel vision with specific aspects of a situation
Personalization - blaming ourselves for things that go wrong in a situation, as well as taking things others do as a direct, personal reaction to us
Should Statements - ‘should’s, ‘must’s, and ‘ought to’s are usually used a tactics to improve ourselves but can begin to become seen as ironclad, causing anger or shame towards anyone who steps outside those guidelines, including ourselves
Disqualifying the positives - disqualifying or invalidating the positive aspects of a situation
Fairness fallacy - spiraling into a self-defeating pattern of resentfulness as we think we know what is fair and someone or the universe won’t agree
Emotional reasoning - the fallacy of “If I feel that way, then it must be true…”
Overgeneralization - Coming to a general conclusion based on a single piece of information; seeing a never-ending pattern of defeat based off of a few unpleasant incidents
Labeling - making global statements by labeling ourselves and ours in specific situations
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy - the false belief that our self-denials will eventually pay off
Counters to challenge cognitive distortions:
Is this a habitual thought that does not serve me?
Can you identify any of the patterns of unhelpful thinking described earlier?
Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought?
What would you say to a friend who had this thought in a similar situation?
What are the costs and benefits of thinking in this way?
How will you feel about this in 6 months time?
Is there another way of looking at this situation?
Tips for Creating Space to Communicate with Thoughts and Emotions:
Use meditation and min