Making sense of anxiety

Anxiety is:- Universal: Necessary: Useful: Lifelong: Shared with other animals. So why does it have such a bad press?

Ask someone if they are anxious and they will often deny it. Perhaps, the word has become tainted because of its use in describing problems such as so-called phobias and other ‘anxiety disorders’. Generally, we prefer softer words like; a bit worried, nervous or stressed. But at the end of the day these are all ways of describing the same psychological process. What is this process and how does it work?

If we listen carefully to how people talk about or write about feelings of anxiety we come across various versions of “It made me anxious”, “My heart started pounding”, “I’m an anxious person”, “I’ve been like it ever since…”, “It’s just the way my brain works”. None of these refer to what the person is thinking. Anxiety is seen as being caused by the things that happen around us, the things that have happened to us in the past, or some version of our biology. If we see anxiety like this, we can do little else but suffer from it.

However, one of the most important things we do is wonder how things will be for us and those around us. We anticipate, we predict, we make plans. We hope some things will happen and that others won’t. This is when anxiety and its psychological twin, excitement, come in. When we predict something we hope will happen, we feel pleasure and excitement. When we predict something we hope doesn’t happen, we begin to feel anxious. This suggests we should see anxiety as an activity with a purpose; we are predicting that something we don’t want will happen. We can clearly get our predictions wrong; we can think something is more likely than it is, and we can imagine the consequences would be worse if they did. When we do this, we will feel more anxious. If we predict disaster our feelings will naturally be very intense.

For as long as we live and are interested in how things will turn out we will want to anticipate what might happen. So, excitement and anxiety will always be a part of our lives.

This is a very different way of thinking about anxiety. It puts thinking at the heart of our experience. If we see anxiety as something we’re doing, we are more able to do something about it rather than just suffering the feelings. But this is not always easy. We all get stuck with habits of thinking. We can be preoccupied by the possibility of certain things going wrong. This often happens because they have gone wrong in the past or because someone has encouraged us to be concerned about the possibility. One of the first things we can do is to be more aware of the predictions we make.

However, perhaps, the biggest thing we’re up against is the fact we live in a culture that insists on seeing anxiety as something that is nothing to do with how we think. Accepting the idea that anxiety is actually something we’re doing can seem puzzling at first. We have to keep reminding ourselves to think of it this way. This takes time and persistence, but the rewards will be a calmer life.

Under Thinking Tools you’ll find The Speeding Car which describes in more detail the ordinary psychology of anxiety and how it works.