With so many people suffering with excessive anxiety, what are we to do about it?
Help with Anxiety
Robert Sapolsky says, “We survive with the right amount of anxiety. The plan is not to get rid of it. The plan is to have the biologically rational, real bases of it turning our systems on.”
In other words, we don’t want to eliminate anxiety altogether — it serves a useful purpose to help us to stay alive and be alert to danger. Imagine feeling no anxiety at all; you might do silly (and dangerous) activities such as walking along the top edge of a tall building on a windy day, needlessly confronting a wild animal, or crossing a busy street without bothering to look out for traffic.
Likewise, you want your anxiety to be put in the right place. It makes sense to be anxious when faced with a real threat, but not when (say) faced with public speaking.
“Thirty percent of humans or so are destined to be seriously impaired with anxiety.” — Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist
“Anxiety is the most common mental illness.” — Ali Mattu, psychologist
What Sapolsky means is is that instead of letting your base instinct turn on anxiety for everyday situations as though you were being attacked by a sabre tooth tiger, and allowing anxiety to overwhelm you, it is better to choose the right things to be anxious about, and at the right level.
That is to say, anxiety in the right places and in the right measure is necessary. It’s not anxiety itself that’s the problem, but only when it’s misplaced or too much. It’s when anxiety gets out of control that it becomes a problem — when anxiety interferes with your normal functioning, when you can’t turn it off even when you don’t need it, when it gets in the way of living your life.
To put it another way, wouldn’t it be great if you could choose to turn off your anxiety (or, better, not turn it on in the first place) whenever anxiety is inappropriate or serves you badly?
When you go to a doctor, the first port of call is often to reach for the pills. Pills certainly have a place in treating anxiety, and indeed without them, many people would have nowhere to go.
But, I like to think of it in a different way. Instead of having overwhelming anxiety and then treating it, wouldn’t it be better to just turn it off so that you don’t need the treatment in the first place?
This might sound like an idealistic and impossible utopia. Up to a point, you would be right; life presents us with stressful situations, and those situations, especially unexpected ones, can cause anxiety no matter how prepared we are.
But that doesn’t mean that we have to be helpless in the face of life. It doesn’t mean that we must surrender and succumb to extreme anxiety, or to let life dictate when we feel anxious. It doesn’t mean that we should feel out of control of our own emotions.
The causes of anxiety
What causes anxiety?
Unlike stress, anxiety is mostly internally generated. In other words, your mind creates the anxiety. It is a worry about what might happen. It usually involves unhelpful thoughts: self-criticism; judging; catastrophising; and more. Sometimes you might feel anxious not because there’s a threat right now, but because your brain remembers (say) childhood punishment or bullying at school.
You might criticise yourself, and feel anxious about it. We might judge others, and feel anxious about it. An external event stresses us, we catastrophise the event in our mind, and… yes, feel anxious about it.
Some people suffer from a generalised anxiety for what might seem to them no reason at all, where the brain creates this anxiety for reasons that you are not necessarily aware of.
Every one of these stresses adds up to create an overwhelming anxiety!
But, this is unnecessary.
Can you really turn off anxiety?
Yes, you can.
You can see the proof in (for example) people who practise certain forms of meditation and mindfulness. Some of these people have learned to turn off almost all anxiety. They can even lower or turn off physical pain.
Anxiety is an interpretation by your brain, and a subsequent change in your body and your thoughts. If you can learn to change the interpretation, and learn to control your body’s responses and your internal thoughts, you can change your response to life events to lower, or even remove, anxiety.
Yes, it takes practice to get good at it, but it doesn’t take long to learn and understand how to do it.
Turning down anxiety
That is exactly what I do with anxiety therapy. You don’t just get therapy (although that is an important part of the process). You also learn these important and simple skills, and how to use them in your everyday life.
I used to be quite a panicky person as a youngster. My friends often used to tell me to calm down. But I didn’t have the skills back then; I struggled with my panic. I had no way to control my feelings.
Now, it’s different. Even during an emergency (which fortunately is rare), I remain calm, rational, efficient, and completely in control. I’ve had friends call me the most unflappable person that they’ve met. This didn’t come from some magical epiphany, and it certainly wasn’t something that I was born with, but instead it came from simple training on how to reduce anxiety.
I want you to have these same skills! I want you to be able to say, at any time, “No, I’m not going to respond to this with anxiety. I’m going to choose how I feel about this situation, and choose how to respond.” I want you to have choice.
Unless your anxiety really is 100% biological in origin (extremely rare), there’s always something that you can do to reduce your anxiety by yourself.
Once you have these skills, it means that you have less need to rely on other forms of anxiety treatment. It gives you greater choice and freedom in deciding how you will proceed.
You learn these important and simple skills, and how to use them in your everyday life.
What if anxiety comes from external events that I don’t control?
This is an important question. What if you feel anxious because of external events? Can you just turn off anxiety?
Here, it’s important to distinguish between stress and anxiety. Stress might be a normal and natural response (though it’s possible to have too much of it), while anxiety is an interpreted response by your brain.
Well, you certainly can learn to turn it down. However, in such cases, it’s not enough to learn the right skills to cope with stress-producing situations. After all, if you live in an threatening environment — abuse, for example — turning down your anxiety won’t remove your threat. To the extent that you can, you must change your environment. Find help wherever you can to get out of that situation.
For an event that you can’t control and you can’t get out of, yes, reducing your anxiety will help you to think clearly, be proactive, and do whatever is best for you under the circumstances. Turning off your anxiety completely might not always be an option, but it’s always worth knowing how to turn it down so that it can serve you better.