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by Margaret Fiero
Have you ever, while in a heightened state of anxiety, been told by someone to “calm down” or “relax”? Does that usually help? As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, I can say unequivocally that hearing something of the sort while in the throes of anxiety does not help me. Rather, it usually just makes the situation worse. I wonder why, then, we think that if we tell ourselves the same thing that it will work. Any time I have tried to “talk myself out of” anxiety has usually resulted in me hyperventilating in a public restroom somewhere.
When others, however well intentioned they may be, tell us to calm down, it may bother us because there’s some judgment behind that statement. Our culture values cool, collected confidence – we see that as a sign of strength. Anxiety embodies the polar opposite. We view it as bad and useless, a sign of weakness. Since anxiety is likened to a character failing, it is no wonder everybody tries to tamp it down with such vigor. Whatever others tell us to do about our anxiety, our own silent commands to ourselves are most likely harsher. Telling yourself to “stop being so stupid” or something similar when you’re anxious is hardly comforting. It is no surprise then that most folks would prefer to zap away their anxiety with medications than actually confront it.
Is there any value to anxiety? It’s hard to imagine there is, especially considering its physical manifestations: sweating, increased heart rate, nausea, dry mouth, etc. At one time, though, those physical effects had an important role in our survival: we needed that increased sense of vigilance when we were facing down a saber tooth tiger. That’s why it’s called the “flight or fight response.” Anxiety is therefore not some sort of deficiency on our part, it’s a leftover evolutionary adaptation that doesn’t have much of a place in our postmodern, high-tech, drive-thru world. Or does it? We may have fewer confrontations with hungry predators in our daily lives now, but we still have crucial moments – they just come in different forms: job interviews, first dates, important projects, exams, presentations, meetings with the boss, among others. Anxiety is a messenger – when you feel it, you know it’s a time for action. Try to listen to its message, and then decide how to respond. Certainly there are things to do for anxiety, but a little anxiety can be telling you something that needs to change in your life.
I don’t claim to be offering a panacea, but then, that’s the point. Maybe when we stop trying to eradicate anxiety, we can begin to live with it more easily. If we can accept that it is a normal reaction to certain situations in our lives, maybe it won’t consume us. Maybe we can even get something positive out of it as we face down the saber tooth tigers of our day.
Brought to you by Just Mind, counselors in Austin who are working to provide their clients with the best care possible.