“I can’t get to sleep, I think about the implications of diving in too deep, and possibly the complications… Especially at night – I worry over situations I know will be all right, perhaps it’s just imagination… Day after day it reappears… Night after night my heartbeat shows the fear…” The music group Men at Work very accurately described a state of anxiety that many people are struggling with. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, generalized anxiety disorders affect about 6.8 million American adults, causing them to be filled with fearfulness and preventing them from fully enjoying their lives. Even though we all know that “Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength,”* this knowledge does not prevent us from preoccupying our minds with the fears of the future. What are the roots of this worry overkill that so many people suffer from and how can we change the exhausting patterns of a fear-laden life? This will be the focus of today’s post.
Generalized and Omnipresent Anxiety
What is anxiety? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a state of excessive worry that an individual finds hard to control. Some of the symptoms of GAD include restlessness, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbances. The symptoms are causing significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning. I like a simpler definition of anxiety. To me anxiety is anticipation stress. It is a fear about the future that has no real foundations in the present. Sounds trivial doesn’t it? Well it isn’t ‘t if the stress of the future it is taking over your life in the present and it never ceases. Life is filled with stressors, but the tricky part is that the moment we get one stressor out of the way, there are two or three more on the horizon that we can lose our sleep over. The state of relaxation is becoming like a luxury that we think we cannot afford and we begin to function in a state of constant fear of things going bad. Dalai Lama XIV summarized the phenomena of anxiety beautifully in his simple statement about a man: “He is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
Stress Going Rogue
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we stress so much over many things, especially over things that will happen (or will not) in the future? Stress is critical to our survival. According to Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, in simple evolutionarily terms, what stress is about is somebody’s intent on eating you, or your intent on eating somebody else. It is an immediate response to a crisis that is going on. The stress response in our body was designed for this very purpose: survival. When you run for your life, basics are all that matter. Your body goes into an emergency mode: lungs work overtime to pump maximum amount of oxygen into the blood stream, the heart races to pump that oxygen throughout the body so muscles can respond instantly. Your body has to turn off everything that is not essential, like growth, reproduction, tissue repair, immunity, ovulation. This is how stress still works for animals, they still can shut their stress response down immediately after the threat has passed. However, human beings cannot seem to find their “off” switch when the threat is gone. According to Sapolsky we turn on the exact same stress response for purely psychological states and anticipatory stresses: thinking about a project for school, taxes coming up, speaking in public, mortgages, or difficulties in a relationship. The scary part is that not only are we no longer using stress for survival, but we are also using it all the time. Our bodies are bombarded with stress hormones that no longer play the role they were supposed to play. Eventually the stress is becoming much more damaging than the stressor itself. As we can see we’re responding to seemingly trivial stressors versus to life threatening events. When you think about it, isn’t it ridiculous that we can get as stressed out about conducting a public speech as we would when someone is trying to kill us? The even more ridiculous part is that we can accomplish that same level of stress by simply thinking of upcoming stressful events- this is what anxiety does to us.
Changing the Stressful Patterns
Life is filled with stressors, but in most cases it is not the stressors that make us anxious, but how we respond to them. Of course, there are moments in everyone’s lives where significant uncontrollable stressors appear (such as illness, death, loss of job, breakup, etc.) and it may be hard to avoid anxious states. However, most of the stressors that create the generalized anxiety in people’s lives are not that serious, and definitely not life-threatening. One of the ways of controlling one’s anxiety is to change the way one thinks about the problem. Our thoughts are deeply connected to our feelings, physical reactions and behaviors, and to a large degree they determine how we will respond to the stressor. For example, if we stress out about the upcoming public presentation and all we do in preparations for it is to visualize the disaster, we will most likely fail. However, if we take care of what we can control (prepare for the presentation) and stop worrying about what we cannot control (e.g. whether people will like it or not) – chances are our anxiety will go down. Analyzing and adjusting one’s thoughts that come with the anxious feelings is a great strategy of controlling the anxiety. If your thoughts are in the tone of “I will never break even”, “I will always be alone”, “I always attract toxic people”, “I’m a loser”, “I will get fired sooner or later”, etc. – no wonder you’re anxious. I am not suggesting positive thinking instead, as that often times tends to be too optimistic and not rooted in reality. The helpful alternative to negative thoughts is more balanced thoughts that are actually reflecting the reality rather than one’s negative state of mind.
In some cases anti-anxiety medication may be necessary in order to help with the overwhelming sense of worry. However, training the mind to change its self-defeating patterns is the key to permanent improvement. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, “If you rely solely on medication to manage depression or anxiety, for example, you have done nothing to train the mind, so that when you come off the medication, you are just as vulnerable to a relapse as though you had never taken the medication.”
It takes work and time to change the way we think about our problems, but it’s not impossible to change. When we think about it, the past is long gone, and the future is not here yet. All we really have is the present moment and it’s not kind to ourselves to waste it with worry overkill.
For more information about generalized anxiety disorder visit: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/index.shtml
A great resource for self-changers who want to work on their anxiety is a book, “Mind Over Mood” by D. Greenberger, PhD & C.A. Padesky, PhD
*quote by Charles Spurgeon
Marta Oko-Riebau, MA has a private practice at Maria Droste Counseling Center. Marta works with clients on their relationships, self-esteem, assertiveness, finding meaning, and increasing life quality and enjoyment.