Believe it or not, fear can be a good thing. If our ancestors didn't feel fear and react to it properly, they wouldn't have protected themselves when they saw a dangerous predator coming after them, and we would not have survived. Thus, the survival mechanism of fear has thankfully survived, or the human species would not have. In our modern society, we rarely -- but sometimes -- need our fear responses to save our lives, such as when a dangerous person meaning harm is stalking us. Nevertheless, when this happens, we can fortunately use the fear response to fight or flee.
Physiologically, anxiety is identical to fear, resulting in symptoms that may include shortness of breath, sweating, blushing, muscle weakness or tension, butterflies in your stomach, or constriction of the throat and chest. Fear, however, is about something specific that usually makes it rational, appropriate, and helpful in many ways. Anxiety on the other hand, is not connected to any real danger or life-threatening event. Anxiety -- as opposed to fear -- generally stifles you from taking any action and sometimes causes you to avoid things you wish you could do. Oftentimes, anxiety provokes feelings of shame, while fear is rarely shameful, as it is a protective mechanism. Whether yours is minor worrying or more severe (such as feelings of panic or losing control), if you experience your anxiety as interfering with your ability to function in your daily life, it might be time to take some steps to get it under control. While you may not be able to control what's happening with the people, places and things around you, you can absolutely learn to control your reaction to an external event.
What specific things in your life trigger anxiety? Make a list of the things that trigger you on a regular basis. It can be helpful to write down events that occurred the past week that might have set off your anxious feelings. (My book Stage Climbing: The Shortest Path to Your Highest Potential can be a good resource to help you recognize what makes you anxious in the big picture.) Using one item from your list, think about these questions to figure out what you're telling yourself that may have created your anxiety and then to challenge your thinking. When this situation occurred, what thoughts were you having? What feelings or emotions did you experience? What were you telling yourself at the time? Were you in any real danger? What is the worst thing that could possibly happen to you as a result of the event. Finally, how likely is it that this worst thing will happen?
For example, if you felt anxious when your boss called you into his office, maybe you had the thought that you were going to be fired. It's possible that you then felt nervous and helpless. Perhaps you told yourself "I won't ever find another job and therefore I won't be able to support myself or my family." In this case, while being laid off might be extremely stressful, it's not life threatening. If your mind tends to jump to the irrational worst-case scenario, like having to live on the street, this is your anxiety talking, since chances are it's probably quite unlikely that would happen. Begin to practice writing these questions and answers down as you experience anxiety-provoking situations throughout your week, and/or try this exercise with other items on your list.
What can you tell yourself instead of those things that create and worsen your anxiety? What are some new ways to think about them? A good question to ask yourself is what is a more realistic, rational attitude I could substitute in this situation? For example, if you think you're going to be fired, you can consider that your boss might have a question for you or even want to praise you for your work. And even if the worst scenario becomes reality, where's the evidence that you can't survive it? When you look at your list at a later point after the anxiety has subsided, ask yourself, what does my irrational side say and what does my rational side say? Can I choose to listen to my rational side instead?
Ask yourself what you'd advise someone else whom you cared about do with similar thoughts. If another person thought they'd be fired because they were called into a meeting or that if they were fired, it would be catastrophic, would you agree? If you're able to think about it rationally for someone else, you can certainly do so for yourself. Another option is to say STOP to yourself aloud or silently when you begin to have worrisome thoughts. While this may seem silly, this simple technique can help shift your attention in the moment away from worrying.
Once you are aware of those things that trigger anxiety, it's helpful to have a "to do" list on hand you for when you begin to worry. For example, when anxious feelings start, one simple strategy you can try is a deep breathing exercise. Imagine your legs are two giant air balloons. As you inhale, imagine your legs filling up with air. As you exhale, imagine all of the air leaving your body. Try this, breathing in to the count of five and out to the five as many times as necessary to feel the anxiety dissipate.
If you can't seem to reduce your anxiety, ask yourself if there is purpose your anxiety is serving. Maybe your anxiety keeps you in a relationship or at a job that you're afraid to leave. If so, face those issues head on, until you are operating according to your choices -- not your anxiety!
As you try these various techniques, notice which ones work best for you. The more you practice a particular strategy, the easier it becomes to gain mastery over your anxiety. Feeling more relaxed something you can achieve. If your anxiety continues to affect your life negatively, I encourage you to seek professional help.
For more action steps to reduce your anxiety, download my complimentary audio program Overcoming Your Anxiety.
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