The first in this series focused on stress. Anxiety and stress are closely related. Anxiety is central to our threat detection system and stress helps us to mount responses to potential threats. Like stress, anxiety gets a bad rap. Our culture feeds us the idea that we must eradicate all adverse feelings in order to be happy human beings. This is neither possible nor desirable. Anxiety is part of who we are and can be a very useful feeling.
Here are seven things to know about anxiety:
- Anxiety as a feeling is normal and necessary
- Anxiety feels bad for a good reason
- Anxiety is closely linked to depression
- We vary as individuals in our anxiety tendencies.
- Anxiety can become disordered when it becomes overgeneralized or generates too many false positives
- Anxiety requires oxygen to burn and mindfulness is like a vacuum chamber where anxiety cannot burn
- We can live happy and productive lives without eradicating anxiety
Without anxiety we would not be here–a species dominating the planet. If our ancestors did not have highly tuned threat detection systems fueled by anxiety, the human species would never have survived. Indeed, no species can survive without a vigilance to threat courtesy of anxiety.
Anxiety feels bad because, like pain, it needs to feel bad to capture our attention in an immediate way. Anxiety has to grip us from the inside out in order to orient attention to a potential threat. It works great when the threat is out there in the environment. However, as human beings, we have the capacity to generate anxiety in imagination–when no threats are present. This can lead to an excess of anxiety.
The systems for anxiety and those for depression seem to overlap quite a bit. The same therapies and medications work for both problems and there is large amount of overlap of these disorders. In some sense, there may be a false separation between the two. I think it can be helpful to group these together as the helpful aversive feelings (that can become disordered when taken to an extreme).
While anxiety is normal, it can become disordered. This occurs in a variety of ways. Sometimes, as in the case with panic disorder, the threat detection system is registering many false positives–a threat is perceived where there is none. Your physician or a mental health professional can help you to determine if your anxiety is normal or has become a treatable disorder.
How anxious we are depends on the combination of many factors. One of them is genetic. We are born with a particular temperament. Some of us are high strung and others of us are more easy going. Most of us hover around average. When we recognize how we are built, we can move towards acceptance. I know I am in the high average range. That’s the way I am built. Meditating for thirty years has helped but it is still the way I am built. Knowing this, I don’t react when my body gets nervous, as it does before public speaking. I just make room for those sensations and move on.
We don’t need to fear anxiety, nor do we have to eradicate it. Mindfulness creates a space where we can allow things to be as they are. When anxiety arises, we need to do a quick check–is there an actual threat? Providing the answer is “no” we can then redirect attention to the present and take our threat detection systems offline. In Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, I used a vacuum chamber metaphor for anxiety.
Anxiety is like a fire, it burns with thoughts, fueled by imagination. Like any fire, it requires oxygen to burn. This oxygen is thinking. When we are mindful, and extricate ourselves from thinking we create a vacuum chamber where nothing can burn–not even anxiety. We may only be able to hold this chamber for a few moments, and we can always recreate it in the next moment.