The human brain is one of the most sophisticated computers ever developed. It is so powerful that it can simulate all kinds of imaginative scenarios, allowing us to predict and plan for the future. Unfortunately for us, it is a double-edged sword that brings with it the curse of anxiety.
Anxiety is different to fear in that fear is a response to a specific present danger, such as a bear, whereas anxiety is usually a more vague concern for the future. Because our brain can imagine many unpleasant possible outcomes, we become fearful of what may come. This might be because of a past trauma, such as being afraid of abandonment, or because we do not know enough to safely predict what may happen, such as starting a new job.
Regardless of what the source may be, anxiety can be damaging as it prevents us from living life to the fullest. To protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety, we develop strategies to ease our anxiety from a very young age. A common example is an object that gives reassurance, such as a teddy bear or a security blanket. Unfortunately, these are less socially acceptable to carry as an adult.
In some ways, almost everything we do could be seen as an attempt to escape anxiety. We strive for stable jobs so that we don’t have to worry about financial problems in the future. We seek pleasure and happiness, through healthy means such as a passionate hobby or unhealthy like alcohol, to distract us from anxiety. We look for a partner who we can connect with emotionally – someone who can hold us and tell us everything will be alright, even when all hope seems lost.
Anxiety is unavoidable, but it can be managed. There are many effective methods.
First, there is distraction. Hobbies and interests let us enter flow state, where our worries melt away because we are so focussed on the present and enjoying the moment that we do not need to worry about the future. Music gives us similar relief, as it helps us calm our nerves and drowns out the neurotic voice in our heads.
Second, there is the physiological approach. Anxiety raises your heart rate and breathing rate. You can trick your brain in to being less anxious by slowing your heart rate and breathing down. This can be done effectively through breathing exercises, meditation or even a simple, relaxing bath.
Third, there is mindfulness. Train yourself in becoming more aware of why you are feeling anxious. Anxiety usually stems from a single source then spreads like wildfire into its general form. Finding the source will make it easier to take the next step.
Lastly and most importantly, there is reassurance. This may be external, such as the kind words from a friend or a motivational poster, or internal, where you remind yourself that you will be okay. Remind yourself of all of the horrible experiences you have already survived in your life. Remind yourself that regardless of how stressful it was at the time, you are still (hopefully) okay. Remind yourself that you are an amazing, resilient, capable person who will get through this.
However, be aware that up to one-fifth of people suffer from anxiety disorders – a group of psychological disorders that cause persistent, distressing anxiety and dysfunctional behaviours developed to try reduce that anxiety. These disorders, such as phobias, panic disorder and OCD, are much more complicated to treat. They often require professional help and even medicines to treat. Even so, the above psychological treatments are used in conjunction and certainly can’t do much harm.
Anxiety is one of the greatest barriers to happiness. So in the wise words of Meher Baba: “Don’t worry, be happy”.