The Tangled Web of Anxiety

At times I catch myself worrying, feeling anxious and fearful about my future. I would bet that I am not alone in experiencing these mental states as anxiety is a normal part of daily life – there is always something to worry about, dread, agonize over, or be stressed by. Anxiety researcher David Barlow points out that without anxiety, the performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted (Barlow, 2002). It is when anxiety excesses in frequency, intensity, and duration that it can become maladaptive.

Anxiety has always been an intriguing subject area to me. I recently read the book Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, written by leading neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, whose NYU lab has been at the forefront of anxiety research efforts. His ground breaking premise is that we have been thinking about anxiety in the wrong way, that anxiety is not an innate state waiting to be unleashed from the brain, but rather made up of self-constructed experiences that we assemble cognitively.

It is noted in the book that there is an optimal relationship between cognition and anxiety in performing life’s tasks; with too little anxiety, one is not motivated, but with too much, impairments result (McGaugh, 2003). It is important for us to recognize how we become overly anxious and how anxiety is manifested in ourselves to avoid circumstances of cognitive, emotional, physical, and psychological impairment. Ledoux suggests four ways in which we become anxious:

“FOUR WAYS TO BE ANXIOUS”:

  1. In the presence of an existing or imminent threat, you worry about the event and its implications for your physical and/or psychological well-being
  2. When you notice body sensations, you worry what they might mean for your physical and/or psychological well-being
  3. Thoughts and memories lead you to worry about your physical and/or psychological well-being
  4. Thoughts and memories result in existential dread, such as worry about leading a meaningful life

The latter two points speak to anxiety appearing in the form of internal verbalization. Thomas Borkovec, who specializes in the science of worry notes that anxiety usually appears in this manner – thoughts, in the form of words (Borkovec, Ray, & Stober, 1998). By engaging in inner discussion with ourselves, we can make the perceived threat that is making us feel anxious more abstract, thereby disengaging from that threat. This helps to avoid deeper more concrete processing that triggers emotional arousal and prevents disconfirmation about the actual extent of the danger posed.

How else can anxieties be made to disappear or at least come to be controlled so they are less debilitating?

Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety reveals four, old-fashioned practical techniques that you can do to make you less anxious.

 

ANXIETY BUSTING TECHNIQUES:

1.      Breathe anxiety away: "This folk wisdom has a grain of truth to it. During stress the sympathetic nervous system dominates, overshadowing the parasympathetic system. But when one breathes slowly and deeply, the vagus nerve, becomes more active and the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic system improves." Try engaging in deep breathing to activate your parasympathetic system.

2.      Focus less on the self by meditating: "Our conscious self will do almost anything to maintain the independence, power, control, or success that it has achieved, even if to do so other people, other cultures, or the world has to suffer. A healthier approach is to let go of the 'absolute self' that we construct and recognize our broader role in life." Try a mindfulness app if you are unsure where to start!

3.      Combine self-exposure with proactive avoidance: If you have a fear of crowds, "rather than forcing oneself to ride out anxiety at a corporate event, use anxiety control strategies, such as relaxation and active coping (like trips to the bathroom or stepping out to make a call) that enable regrouping before re-exposure."

4.      Learn from resilient, non-anxious people: "Resilient individuals tend to have a large repertoire of active coping options. We're able to use observation and instruction to explicitly learn to avoid. We create avoidance concepts or schemas, and when in danger we draw upon these stored action plans." Lastly, if you are a natural worrier you CAN change! Although some people are more anxious than others by nature, ever increasing anxiety does not have to be their destiny. Just as the brain can learn to be anxious, it can also learn to not be with re-wiring.

What do you do when you feel anxious at work? What are your strategies?

References

Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic. New York: Guilford Press.

Borkovec, T. D., Ray, W. J., & Stober, J. (1998). “Worry: A cognitive phenomenon intimately linked to affective, physiological, and interpersonal behavioral processes.” Cognitive Therapy, 22(6): 561-576. doi: 10.1023/A:1018790003416

Ledoux, J. (2015). Anxious: Using the brain to understand and treat fear and anxiety. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.

McGaugh, J. L. (2003). Memory and emotion: The making of lasting memories. London: The Orion Publishing Group.