Post Written by: Sara Hunter, OITE Wellness Advisor
Anxiety is a normal and healthy emotion that all humans experience. It’s a way to signal to our brain and body that we should prepare for action. This reaction is part of what contributes peak performance and sustained attention. As a result, we don’t need to get rid of our anxiety; we just need to learn how to respond to it differently.
Anxiety becomes disordered when its intensity is disproportionate to the anxiety-provoking event. With this heightened response, we move quickly into flight, fight or freeze mode, mechanisms of our evolved biology to keep us safe from danger – to keep us alive. But the anxiety-provoking events we experience in today’s world, though they trigger the same physiological response whether we’re in a stressful situation or a life or death situation– increased heart rate, sweaty palms, intensified breathing – are usually not matters of survival.
Consequentially, our strategies of escape and avoidance in response to anxiety aren’t effective like they once were for us when we needed to regularly ensure physical safety. In fact, they tend to reinforce the innate messaging that those behaviors – escaping or avoiding — are what is keeping us safe and therefore, are necessary to keep doing. So, we cancel our public speaking events, we push back the exam we need to take, we avoid a difficult conversation with a colleague or boss, or we don’t take calculated risks at work because we may be seen as a failure. These avoidant behaviors only reinforce our body and brain’s belief that these scenarios are truly dangerous and that we can’t handle them, creating a feedback loop of a heightened anxiety response when these situations inevitably show up again.
Instead of perpetuating our anxiety by avoiding or moving around these stressful situations, we need to find useful ways to move through it.
- Choose something that matters more than the discomfort you’ll experience from anxiety. Write that down and keep it somewhere you can see as a reminder in the moments when you feel your anxiety coming on.
- Shift your perspective of anxiety from something that you dread or even fear to a mechanism that is preparing your body and mind for optimal performance.
- Change your rules around anxiety from: I’ll do this until I feel too overwhelmed to I will do these even when I feel anxiety. Find grounding techniques to help you manage this.
- Build emotional muscles: the more you practice something the stronger the wiring in your brain will become. You can do hard things and withstand discomfort.
- Let go of perfection – develop a growth mindset by asking yourself what skills or supports you may need to acquire to address this problem differently, more effectively.
- Let go of the belief that when life doesn’t go smoothly or isn’t easy then it’s bad and time to quit.
- Change how you perceive situations by noticing what distorted thoughts you may have and countering it with evidence. This strategy is not functional in the time of heightened stress and anxiety so it will be necessary for you to have awareness around your cognitive distortions and the narratives that effectively combat those.
- Expose yourself to anxiety in small steps. Build a hierarchy of tolerance, starting first with the small stressors and building up to the stressors you tend to avoid all together.
- Write down goals that are connected to moving through your anxiety. Start small and make them realistic. Remember to take note of your accomplishments and growth along the way.
- Get support – practice patience and compassion.