How to deal with anxiety is not the type of question that occurs to your mind when the shit is breaking loose.
You know! When your heart is beating fast. When your chest is heavy. When you cannot stand still. When everything feels too much. And when it feels as though you are not going to be able to withstand whatever that is coming.
In this state, you will have different questions running around your mind.
Questions like: what is wrong with me? What if I screwed up? What if I got hurt? Why is everything so heavy? Why can’t I focus and relax? Why is it too painful? What the fuck is wrong with me? Why am I such a wimp? Err, what is wrong with me? Damn it, where is my bottle of wine (or drug of choice, the kitchen, that crazy partner, my smartphone …etc.)?
Because those are awful questions, their answers will always be as awful. And how do we usually deal with the awfulness of these answers? We numb it. We all have our means to numb the awful, strong feelings. And anxiety is one of the strong triggers.
So, we numb.
And as Brene Brown stresses out, when we numb the bad, we also numb the good. We cannot selectively numb bad feelings. We will numb everything.
Then we get into the state of feeling nothing or being numb.
But a greater deal of anxiety and/or pain strikes sooner or later. And we are drawn to the same cycle all over again.
So, the question of how to deal with anxiety is thrown out of the window. Why? Because it is difficult to think rationally during such situations. It is hard to ask the right question during such times.
Therefore, I am going to assume that you are reading this article is a relaxed state. Understand the concepts and the ideas behind it. And then, when the shit hits the fan, do your best to apply what you learned.
A little caveat is that this article is not going to eliminate all your anxiety. Some anxiety will always be there. Instead, it is going to help you eliminate the unreasonable anxiety which leads you to act stupidly and think irrationally and feel bad about yourself. The normal amount of anxiety, afterward, will actually help you perform better.
But first things first …
Anxiety as a mental disorder
Some people suffer from anxiety disorders. Things like panic attacks and general anxiety disorder, to mention only a few.
While this article might help, you better consult a mental health professional.
This article is meant to lessen the exaggerated anxiety. And then, stop it from controlling our decisions and actions. But when it comes to severe and extreme anxiety, you are better off consulting a professional.
Why do we feel anxiety?
As a biological response, anxiety stimulates us and arouses us. We become alerted. We anticipate danger; therefore, we are in this uncomfortable fight or flight mode.
Your body will not do this to you unless it believes there might be a threat somehow.
But having a threat is not enough, for this is fear, not anxiety. Anxiety happens when you believe that you are not prepared or occupied or enough to handle this threat. This is the psychological trigger.
Think about it. Social anxiety is when you fear social situations and fear that you are going to perform badly in them 1because you believe you don’t have what it takes. The anxiety you feel before giving a presentation is also because of the same reason to some extent.
This is not totally bad. It is your mind’s way to make sure you perform well.
It becomes bad when it is driven by irrational beliefs and when it actually cripples you and stop you from performing. And, yeah, when it feels too heavy and too painful.
What do you believe?
There was a study. This study was about how infants attach and react to their caregivers (mothers, mostly). Fast-forward and we have what we now call attachment theory.
It is a theory about how adults get attached to their romantic partners and how they relate to them.
According to this theory, we have 3 types of people 2(some say 4; they mix 2 types together): secure people, anxious people, and avoidant people.
Generally, secure people have positive beliefs about themselves and the people around them. This is why they act securely in their relationships.
Avoidants have positive beliefs about themselves and negative beliefs about the people around them. They assume people aren’t trustworthy, that people will exploit them and/or suffocate them. And they believe that they are better off on their own.
Anxious people, who are our main focus right now, have negative beliefs about themselves and positive beliefs about the people around them. They tend to want to get close to people but believe that they are too flawed and too much of a mess. They can get very needy and clingy as a result of not being able to stand on their own.
Those anxious people get into what book attached calls: an activated attachment system.
The activated attachment system is a state in which the individual sets up to connect/re-connect with their attachment figure 3caregivers previously/partner currently. This may lead to overthinking, being preoccupied, and literally feeling anxious. And it may also lead to behaviors such as over-texting, over-calling, accusations of unfaithfulness …etc.
This activated attachment system is a state of mixed emotions. Anxiety is the main power here (hint the name anxious). Other emotions and fears, such as fear of abandonment or disappointment, might also be present.
Now here is what is interesting.
Watch how skillful your mind is
In the book insecure in love, there was something about confirming one’s beliefs about one’s self (and the others).
Remember, the secures, anxious, and avoidants have specific beliefs about themselves 4abouttheir own worth and lovability and the world. And they tend to confirm these beliefs in a specific way. In a cognitive thinking process that takes place unconsciously.
Those people, according to the book, selectively pay attention to specific pieces of information, selectively remember specific pieces of information, and they selectively interpret all pieces of information in a way that confirms the way they see themselves.
In other words, it all starts with what you believe about yourself. Your own worthiness or unworthiness, your lovability or unlovability, in the context of the book insecure in love. From there, you only see and believe what will confirm the way you believe you are.
The book explains:
“Selective attention: People pay more attention to, and spend more time considering, feedback that confirms their sense of their own lovability or unlovability than feedback that disconfirms it.
Selective memory: People tend to remember feedback that confirms their sense of being worthy or unworthy of love. Sometimes they don’t even process information that conflicts with their perception, let alone remember it over time.
Selective interpretation: People tend to unquestioningly believe feedback that confirms their sense of being lovable or unlovable. They think any feedback that conflicts with their preconception is due to a mistake or deception. They also interpret absent or ambiguous evidence as support for their self-perceptions.”
Now let’s take an anxious person and see how these 3 factors contribute to the activation of their attachment system. Again, that state of excruciating anxiety and fear.
Jane doesn’t replay to Greg’s calls. And she doesn’t seem to be answering his texts, too. It has been almost an hour and she still doesn’t get back to him.
He is starting to lose his mind. The physical symptoms have started to occur. He can’t stand still anymore.
His mind is remembering all the times he was abandoned. All the past rejections and all the unanswered calls and seen but not responded to texts. He can physically recall how rejection hurt him in the past and how inadequate and unworthy of love he felt.
He cannot pay attention to anything else than the fact that Jane isn’t answering his phone calls. The fact that she might be busy or tired, might have not seen her phone yet, might be trying to get back to him but there is no coverage. The fact that she has always answered his phones and always did her best to assure him. All of that wasn’t paid any attention and was filtered out in a second.
And now he is interpreting her acts of not replying as her abandoning him and rejecting him.
2 hours later, Jane calls him to tell him that she had been charging her phone and she did not hear it ring.
Now, in this case, Greg may or may not calm down and believe her. If we preceded further, this article would go deeper into relationships and the secure ways of communicating and dealing with conflict. For now, this is just an article about anxiety. The relationship examples will help because they are extreme and are supported by a good body of research.
So, we will stop here and analyze the anxiety part based on what we learned and what we will learn in seconds, too.
Had Greg not given up to his flawed cognitive processing of the events, he would not have been affected emotionally to this extent. Regardless of whether Jane was faithful or not. It is never healthy to get this emotionally activated.
In the book We Do by the relationships’ therapist Stan Tatkin, there is something that he refers to as the troublesome triad.
This troublesome triad consists of memory, perception, and communication.
It is present during conflicts and in times where we need to be communicating with our partner.
(Again, I am using relationships examples because they can be filled with more intense emotions and therefore more extreme. This is good for illustrating concepts.)
He talks about how our memories are unreliable. They are, he mentions, affected by our state. And then we have the perception, which is affected also by our memories and state. And when it comes to communication, Dr. Stan says that we are terrible communicators and most of the time we misunderstand each other. 5And in my opinion, our memories and perception (which both are affected by our state), are going to affect the way we communicate (or not) with people or our partner.
Your memory can get affected by your emotional state. When you are sad, you will recall all the times you have been sad at. All the people who have hurt you. All the times when people ignored and rejected you.
Your perception will also get affected by how bad you feel and all these bad memories 6which are likely made up and don’t 100% reflect the reality. Think of it as having clouded judgment.
Your communication, therefore, will suck.
Without going any deeper, these pieces of information can tell us that we cannot trust our own minds when we are in a state of distress. And boy, what a state of distress anxiety is!
Your memories and judgments are totally unreliable at that moment. And to keep your relationship healthy, it is better to avoid communicating while in this state or being consciously aware of these misperceptions. And in our context, it is better to not believe everything your mind suggests.
In brief, when you are feeling anxious, your memories and your anticipation of the future are not that accurate and you should not rely on them.
Now, how to deal with anxiety of all kinds?
It is time we handled this anxiety.
Here is, in a short and sweet manner, how to handle our anxieties in a better way. This better way will not make us feel no anxiety or distress at all. But, it will lessen our anxiety and help us not to act in stupid ways.
- Awareness: this, in and of itself, can be enough. Remind your mind of all the ways you could be selectively remembering and interpreting and how your doubts and negative beliefs about yourself are probably guiding the way you think. You are going to be more in control. Awareness starts by asking questions that challenge your current ways of thinking and feeling. It also starts by ‘what if’ questions that confirm the opposite of what you believe in. Is what I am feeling right now true or is it just a projection of my own insecurities? What if I am emotionally charged and in fact, there is a logical explanation for what has happened?
- Disengagement: for 20 minutes, do something else entirely. The 20 minutes is the time it takes the primate parts of your brain which get activated to calm down, according to Dr. John Gottman in one of his books where he was talking about conflict and how to fight with your partner 7woman, actually! when your mind is high on negative emotions. So, take a break for 20 minutes and do something else. You can distract yourself. You can meditate. You can do whatever that you want to do to disengage for these 20 minutes.
- More awareness: after disengagement, do practice more self-awareness. Awareness of how your mind can be acting out irrationally. And how you can actually take control back and slowly start to use the rational parts of your brains, which Dr. Stan (previously mentioned) refers to them as the ambassadors.
- Approach the world from a place of awareness and security: by now, your anxiety will have lessened as a result of the new cognitive processing. Engage with the world with the less anxious version of you. You will be able to act better and hopefully, communicate better and make better decisions. Not to mention perform better, of course!
- Always take care of yourself: anxiety can consume you. Make sure, especially if you are a sensitive person, that you get enough sleep and rest. Nothing is worse than being emotionally activated and not having rest. Your body and mind need it. And your mind will work better when it gets enough rest. And food! You need to be eating well because anxiety is physically consuming as well. This is one of the pieces of advice that Jordan Peterson gives in this video.
- Do something: even if you are afraid, do something. Reach out. Talk. Have that conversation. Do that presentation. Do something. Usually, your anxiety is about something happening or not happening in your life. While the concepts we have just addressed can help lessen the anxiety, there is always a reason behind this anxiety. And usually, something has to be done in real life. Don’t avoid it. Do it. Or stop doing it, depending on your situation.
- Don’t try to kill anxiety: don’t try to fight it and 100% get rid of it. I know it is uncomfortable, but don’t. You will never win. We want to lessen its intensity. We want to get rid of the irrational amounts of it. But always know that it is not something to kill. It is something to control. The right amount of anxiety can actually help you perform better and keep caring about the things and the people you care about.