Anxiety is a state of mind that prepares the body to avoid threats, whether mental or physical. It’s meant to serve as a mechanism of protection – by increasing vigilance, the animal proactively avoids harm. When this level of arousal exceeds what’s necessary for the situation, it becomes a debilitating impediment. A once defensive mechanism, can become a vulnerability, a disorder – in this state, we succumb to excessive worry leading to deranged coping skills.
The first step to overcoming anxiety is to understand exactly what is causing your stress. Put simply, unless we have awareness over the stress-inducing aspects of our life, we can neither control, nor overcome them.
There are two types of anxiety-driven states:
One is the threat to our survival – enduring illness, experiencing the sickness or death of a loved one, losing a job, getting a divorce. The level of stress induced from these triggers directly correlates to how directly our survival is threatened. This reaction is elicited by our fear of loss. You have to endure the initial phase of grief, work to regain strength, and then reflect on the situation to walk away with a lesson learned. Mourning periods are a vital part of our culture – allowing us time to regain our courage in the face of catastrophe.
The second anxiety is triggered by perceived threat. These triggers tend to be situations that in no way impact our survival, yet our physiological reactions mirror that of imminent danger. These include such inducers as meeting new people, work deadlines, unmet expectations at home. Our minds misperceive these tasks as predator threats comparable to that experienced while hunting in unchartered territory during our primitive days. During public speaking, for instance, our mind concludes that the audience is judging our ability to deliver a perfect product. It is only our unrealistic expectations that cause stress in these non-threatening situations.
Unless we have awareness over the stress-inducing aspects of our life, we can neither control, nor overcome them.
Despite our evolution from hunter-gatherer states to civilized societies, our mind sometimes fails to discriminate a non-threatening situation from that of a survival predator.
We can overcome these anxious reactions by familiarizing our minds with these foreign, intimidating situations. We can turn unfamiliarity (one of the leading triggers of anxiety), into a habitual act, easing the stress during these activities.
The key to alleviating anxiety is recognizing which of these two states it falls – is it life threatening? If not, teach your mind to respond accordingly.