Anxiety usually gets a bad rap, but in many ways, anxiety can be an unexpected ally. The sensation of anxiety prompts us to make good, informed decisions. Imagine this: you are starting a new job tomorrow. You don’t yet know any of your colleagues, and know that a recommendation from your new boss can open innumerable doors. As you lay your head down that night, sleep may be a bit harder to come by. Your brain is occupied with thoughts like, “I hope I’m not late tomorrow; that would make a terrible first impression…I wonder what they eat for lunch—will I be an outcast if I pack tuna fish?…I wonder if my boss appreciates humor or is all business?” Thoughts such as these, although potentially anxiety provoking, can serve as prompts to engage in behaviors that will help you get off to a new start. For example, you might go out of your way to set alarms, observe and respect the extant culture, and notice social cues from your colleagues and boss.
If you had absolutely no anxiety over your first day of work, you might walk in with such ease that you end up missing the cues along the way that point towards pertinent information (e.g., you might be so calm and confident that you do not pick up on the fact that there is a strict “no phone” policy until your boss comes to see how you are settling in, and sees you on your phone). In fact, it bears saying: feelings aren’t good or bad (though some are more or less comfortable than others). Feelings are information bearers: they are responses to the information we receive from the world around us.
Your nervous system plays a key role in how you approach your first day of work (e.g., whether you pay lots of attention to the potential tuna situation or you are so relaxed you don’t even notice the “no phones” policy). When you feel safe, you let your guard down—you aren’t too focused on potentialities because you’re being present to the moment (Gobbel, 2020). When you feel threatened, you remain on high-alert and notice minute details that could be important in preventing a potential future problem. The reason you feel safe or threatened, though, is informed by the information your nervous system perceives. Your brain is constantly asking itself, am “Am I safe or unsafe?” Data shows this happens four times every second! Past experiences, like having a lackadaisical versus micromanaging boss, and current behaviors, like compassionate versus loathing self-talk, contribute to whether our brains perceive an environment as safe or unsafe. When your brain perceives an environment as unsafe, your sympathetic nervous system gets activated: your heart races, your breathing shallows, your mouth gets dry, and you begin to sweat (Mullin, n.d.). These are physiological responses to perceived threats and they can be really helpful in threatening situations: your blood is pumping so you are ready to fight or run, you are sweating in order to cool down, and you are breathing rapidly in an effort to take in as much oxygen as possible.
Although relatively uncomfortable, each of these behaviors can help you survive in a life threatening experience. This was highly relevant when the threats to humanity were largely physical and immediate. Like when a mountain lion was hungry and ten feet away! While the threats we face are less immediately life threatening (e.g., your boss noticed you were 5 minutes late the morning of your performance review), our brains are creatures of habit and continue to direct our bodies to respond the same way — with fight or flight behaviors. Our brains don’t know the difference between that life threatening situation, and an awkward but manageable one. A little bit of anxiety serves as a heads up—tense shoulders, clenched jaws, stomachaches, and other physical manifestations of stress serve as clues from our body that we are feeling unsafe in some way, and that it would behoove us to do something about it.
The good news is, our brains are creatures of habit. The neural networks that make up our brains are like well-worn paths that are formed from habitual use. In this case, the paths pertain to perceiving an environment as safe or unsafe. If your brain, or the brain of someone you love, is stuck with “unsafe” as the default perception, therapy can help you strengthen the neural networks that perceive safe situations as safe.
Thus, although anxiety can be an uncomfortable emotion to experience—and certainly a heart-wrenching one to watch our loved ones experience—the goal is not to eradicate it. To completely cut it out of the picture would lead to less observation and less informed decisions on our part: if we were (always) calm in the present, we’d have a whole lot more trouble on our hands in the future (remember, you have anxious thoughts to thank for reminding you not to bring tuna fish on your first day!). That’s not to say, however, that we want to be ruled by our anxiety. Imagine your brain is a mayor and anxiety is the constituent that comes with reports about potential areas of need in the community. You want to hear what the constituent is saying, to stay informed, and to provide support. Then, ultimately, you need to accurately weigh the information amidst the context and other information available to you, in order to make the best decision.
When anxiety becomes the default response, the constituent has deposed you as mayor and declared all of life a state of emergency. At this point, we’d say it has reached clinical level: anxiety is causing distress that is markedly intense and atypical. Although typically referred to broadly (e.g., “I have anxiety”), there are seven subtypes of anxiety: selective mutism, specific phobias, social anxiety, panic, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, and substance/medication-induced anxiety (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Anxiety disorders are characterized by avoidant behaviors, physical manifestations of stress (e.g., headaches, stomach aches, the sensation of having a tight chest), and high levels of vigilance and preparation (e.g., “just in case” or “safety” behaviors) to combat the fears/potential threats.
Takeaways: 1) Whether or not your feel anxious has a lot to do with your nervous system; depending on how your nervous system perceives an environment (e.g., safe versus threatening), your body will have different responses.
2) If your brain is prone to perceiving “unsafe” in safe situations, you can engage in activities to change the default perception.
3) Anxiety is a normal (and helpful) emotion; if you or a loved one are experiencing too much anxiety, our goal is to help you find a better balance (not get rid of it entirely).
Want to talk with your children about anxiety and not sure where to start? Check out Wilma Jean the Worry Machine by Julia Cook. Wilma Jean thinks she has the “worry flu”—day after day she is sick to her stomach with “What if…” worries. With the help of her mom and teacher, Wilma Jean feels supported and gains some strategies to make sure the worries don’t take over. See the attached conversation guide to brainstorm how you might talk with your children about anxiety based on Wilma Jean the Worry Machine.
Just like Wilma Jean, you are going to make a worry hat! We don’t want to avoid worries, but we don’t want them to take over all of the time, either. Set a timer for 10 minutes and get to worrying. When the timer dings, use your imagination and scoop your worries into the worry hat. The worry hat will hold them until you need them again (you can put the hat back on). During the rest of the day, you can rest assured that the worry hat is holding your worries and you can always go back to them if you need them.
To make a worry hat, get a large (11×18) piece of black construction paper and hold it “hot dog” style. Measure two inches from the left edge of the paper and draw a vertical line there. Put glue on the two-inch strip. Loosely fold the right edge of the paper so it touches the vertical line. Fold the glue side over to make a cylinder. As the glue dries, cut the middle out of a paper plate; glue the empty circle to the bottom of the cylinder to make the hat’s brim.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed). Washington, DC: Author.
Gobbel, R. (Instructor) (2020, March 18). Creating Felt Safety [Webinar]. https://robyngobbel.com/store/
Mullin, Greg. Parts of the nervous system. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/atd-bhcc-intropsych/chapter/parts-of-the-nervous-system/.