If you struggle with anxiety, you’re not alone. It’s rampant. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States, ages 18 and older, every year. Although anxiety is highly treatable, only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.¹
One of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety is that it’s interchangeable with worry. Not so. Anxiety is an emotion. Worrying is a thought process. Anxiety is a normal reaction to feeling out of control. Worrying is a coping strategy, albeit an ineffective one. Anxiety is unavoidable. Worrying is a choice.
It saddens me that so many struggle with incessant worrying, interfering with sleep, disrupting their productivity, making them depressed. It’s so unnecessary! You probably don’t believe me. You probably think I’m selling you “a bill of goods.” But I have conquered worrying and teach others everyday how to do the same.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. The sensation you know as anxiety is your body revving up to protect you from a threatening situation. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but so is touching a hot stove. It’s there for a reason. It’s how most people cope with anxiety that is problematic.
Anytime we feel out of control, we experience anxiety. This is particularly true when we’re emotionally invested in the outcome. For example, if you’re going on a job interview, you would likely feel anxious about making a good impression. If you start getting severe headaches, you would likely feel anxious until you got answers from your doctor. If you’re going on a first date, you would likely feel anxious until you got past the awkward introductions.
Through my years of practice, I have found anxiety is the result of three fears: harm to self or loved ones, rejection or failure. Most people worry because they mistakenly believe it gives them some measure of control. By anticipating the worst, they reason, they’re more likely to avoid it and less likely to be disappointed. But if you lay in bed worrying all night what are you accomplishing? You’re not doing anything to fix the problem.
In order to avoid whatever you’re anxious about, you have to identify what’s in your control. Consider my analogy of a hand on a hot stove. If your brain doesn’t tell you which part of your body is hurting, you wouldn’t know to pull your hand away! Ask yourself, “Exactly what am I afraid of?” “I’ll lose my job and become homeless.” “I’ll say something awkward and no one will like me.” “I’ll be a bad mom and my child will be taken away from me.” Just remember: feelings are not facts – no matter how scary or uncomfortable.
In my 25yrs of practice, I’ve never had a patient report back, “the situation was worse than I feared.” 99% of the time, they’re irrational, even catastrophic. Then my patient regrets being “stressed-out for nothing.” Once you’ve identified your fears, then you can problem-solve. If you’re afraid of turning in a bad report, forgetting to change a diaper or making an awkward remark, what’s in your control? But also, what’s not in your control, what’s not your responsibility, what’s unrealistic? Once you’ve done everything in your control, worrying serves no productive purpose but to cause more anxiety.
Worrying is more than a waste of energy. When we worry, we’re either anticipating something bad happening or rehashing something that’s already happened. In other words, we’re not focused on what we’re doing in the present moment. Thus, it interferes with our concentration and productivity and undermines the very thing we’re trying to avoid: failure or rejection.
Worrying also undermines happiness. Simply put, we can’t be happy if we cant be present. Imagine going on a vacation, but the entire time, you’re thinking about work, bills, chores waiting for you when you return. That wouldn’t feel like much of a vacation.
This is when a technique called mindfulness is invaluable. It teaches how to redirect your attention away from worry, back to what we’re doing in the present moment. What usually gets in the way of mastering this technique is not poor concentration. It’s expected you will get distracted. Rather it’s the fear of letting go of an almost magical association in our minds between worrying and preventing bad outcomes.
¹ Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Facts& Statistics https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statisticsaww