Facing Anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is another word for fear or worry. It is a feeling of uneasiness or distress about some real or perceived threat.

Is anxiety ever good?

The feeling of anxiety is caused by a tiny structure deep in the brain which warns us when danger is present in our environment. This built-in structure, called the amygdala, tells our body that it is time to fight or flee in response to a threat. For example, if you are out hiking and are confronted by a mountain lion, your amygdala will tell your body, “This is not good, I better fight or run”. Or if you are walking down a dark alley alone and see two people approaching, you may consider walking the other way or taking some other precaution. This fight or flight response is a mechanism put there by God to keep us alive.

Imagine for a moment, that your amygdala didn’t work. So, when real danger is present, you do nothing to protect yourself. Sure, you may be considered the bravest guy or girl in town, and maybe even the life of the party once and a while, but you wouldn’t live very long! Soon a situation will overcome you, or you’ll do something very foolish, and you’ll wish that darn amygdala would do its job!

So yes, anxiety can be a very good thing. It can keep us from danger and alert us when danger is present so that we can protect ourselves and our loved ones.

When is anxiety a problem?

Anxiety becomes a problem when you are anxious all the time or a good majority of the time, or you are afraid or worried about threats that are not real or are not imminent, and this fear significantly impacts your day to day life.

For example, some people are so afraid of heights, they won’t fly in a plane, which could limit work, family, or leisure opportunities. Others are so afraid of failing, they don’t take risks or try new things. Other fears that can really impact someone’s life include the fear of getting hurt in a relationship, fear of what people think, or fear of losing someone or something. When fear is the dominant force in your life, that’s not good. Anxiety like this affects our relationships, productivity, life satisfaction, and even our health.

How can we combat this kind of anxiety?

  1. Recognize triggers to your anxiety and how anxious you are.

    For example, which people or situations tend to make you anxious? Maybe you get anxious at social gatherings where there are people you don’t know. Or maybe you get anxious when you have to speak in front of a crowd, go on an interview, or ask someone on a date. Whatever your triggers are, it is important to recognize them. Anxiety runs on a continuum from mild to severe. For example, public speaking may cause mild anxiety, but driving on the freeway causes severe anxiety. Rate your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being not much anxiety at all and 100 being severely high anxiety.

  2. Figure out specific thoughts that are driving your anxiety.

    Often times, these thoughts come automatically in the face of an anxiety provoking situation. Sometimes the thoughts contain errors, that is, they are not completely accurate. See the posting on Thought Errors for a list of common thought mistakes. You may have several automatic thoughts, but there is usually one predominate thought, or “hot thought”. Since this hot thought is strongly contributing to your anxiety, it should be examined to see how valid it really is, as described below.

  3. Find evidence for and evidence against your “hot thought”.

    Try to think through whether there is evidence that supports your hot thought. It was mentioned that hot thoughts often contain Thought Errors, but there may also be some truth in your hot thought. Next, try to think through evidence that contradicts your hot thought. Are there exceptions or situations where the hot thought would not be true?

  4. Come up with an alternative, more balanced, thought to replace your “hot thought”.

    If you have looked at the evidence for and against your hot thought, and you have found that your hot thought may not be entirely accurate, it makes sense at this point find an alternative, more balanced thought to replace it.

  5. Re-rate your anxiety.

    On a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being not much anxiety at all and 100 being severely high anxiety, re-rate your anxiety over the situation.

It is usually best to go through this process by writing everything down.

The hope is that in going through this process, you have been able to more clearly identify the thoughts that are driving your anxiety, and judge whether or not they are valid based on evidence. If they are invalid, you can develop an alternative way to think about your problem, which can lower your anxiety about the situation.

Points to remember

It is often your thoughts that lead to emotions like anxiety and depression. If you can change how you think, you’ll change how you feel.

It’s not uncommon to need some support when first starting to address your anxiety. A skilled therapist can help. I utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat anxiety and depression in adults, adolescents, and children in Southlake and surrounding areas.

Feel free to contact me any time to discuss how I may be able to help you.

Dr. Michael Messina

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