Insights into Anxiety

The dictionary defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome”.  It is no small wonder that such a phenomenon is so prevalent given that most aspects of life have a greater or lesser amount of “uncertain outcomes”.  Even things that we take for granted are not always a given.  Yet, not everyone suffers from a true anxiety disorder.

Anxiety serves an important function.  We are all born with it and without it, we would have probably gone extinct long ago.  It is a type of alarm system that serves to protect us and our families from personal danger.  It triggers our fight, flight or freeze responses.  Think of our ancestors who needed to be alert to animal attacks or get mauled, the environment or facing freezing, or where the next meal would come from to prevent starvation.

In today’s world this translates into situations such as performing well at work, paying the bills, being alert when driving or passing that final exam.  The list could go on and on.  These modern challenges also trigger that basic fight, flight or freeze response.  Yet, some of us are pretty good at managing these influences, while others, not so much…. Why is that?  What are the differences?

Some of the most striking differences between those who do well in managing stress are based upon the rules and tools that they learned from their family of origin.  If the family was supportive and validating, then the person learned effective coping mechanisms (tools), learned how things generally worked themselves out (rules), and developed a good sense of self-worth.  In other words they developed the abilities to be flexible, resilient, and remain curious.

What is great is that becoming flexible, curious and resilient doesn’t solely rely on both parents needing to be validating, only one is required.  Research has also shown that an outside adult, such as a neighbor, teacher or extended relative could also be that stabilizing force in developing the needed skills.  This is also not just regulated to when a person is young, but that the ability to learn the necessary skills can be acquired through-out that individual’s life time.

Another difference in those who are better at regulating their emotions is their orientation to time.  This is not the underlying fact that time is finite, which is a cause all on its own for a host of anxiety issues, but more so where one’s thoughts and motivators tend to lay.  When we born, the only true sense of time we have is the present.  Later, when we begin to reflect back on our experiences, we develop a past orientation.  Finally, we learn that there are things we need to prepare for and in doing so, we become more future oriented.  (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008). 

These perceptions are part of the cultural/social fabric and each cultural worldview gravitates towards one orientation.  Traditional worldviews tend to rely heavily on the past.  Modern or objective worldviews tend to look to the future.  Post-modern worldviews tend to try to stay in the here and now.  The trick is to find a way to be aware of all three and use them as each situation warrants.  We have to learn to look to the past for reference, but not be bound to it.  We have to look to the future to try and predict the possibilities, but not dread or become hyper focused on them and we need to be aware of the here and now, but not become solely focused on immediate gratification.

The healthier individuals are the ones who are able to look at the past to prepare for the future, but remain in the present, the only moment we truly exist within, all while making adjustments as needed.  It might sound difficult, but it is something we all do to a greater or lesser extent. However, again given our culture and family of origin, there is a tendency to draw upon either the future, present or past orientation, neglecting one if not both of the other.

When one spends too much time focused on the future (deadlines, what if’s) he or she runs the risk of feeling the full force of anxiety and developing compulsive behaviors or panic attacks.  If someone is more heavily focused on the past (mistakes, accomplishments, or could have’s) that person runs the risk of feeling down or depressed.  If one is solely focused on the present (immediate self-gratification), then there is no growth, loss of energy and feelings of just going thru the motions with no purpose in life which can lead to both levels of depression and anxiety.

This is one reason why approaches such as mindfulness, positive psychology or Gestalt psychology have become some of the most effective tools in treating both symptoms.  They all help to reset the balance and pull us back to the here and now while maintaining an awareness of the past and future.  Interested in more?  Check out this video for Five Simple Ways to add Mindfulness to Your Day.

Need more help?  Be sure to visit my website and send me a message.

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