At a time when advances in technology have raised the general standard of living, anxiety is on the increase, across all age levels. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, affecting, on average, 1 in 4 people.
Anxiety is a natural state, so why do so many people struggle with it? There is not a simple answer to this question. However, having a better understanding of anxiety can go a long way in helping to manage it, so that it does not become overwhelming and debilitating.
Our Alarm System
Anxiety is an inbuilt mechanism that is designed to alert us to potential threats in our environment. When we encounter situations we perceive to be threatening, a structure in the brain called the amygdala, sets off an alarm, called the fightflight response. The fear response is a powerful whole-body
experience involving the release of stress hormones that mobilise us for action. When the threat has passed, our system calms down, and things can return to normal. So anxiety has a purpose – to keep us safe by problem-solving our way out of situations that might threaten our safety and wellbeing. Our
alarm system generally works well in situations that involve a threat to physical safety, as long as we can take some form of action.
However, in our society, we have become accustomed to being able to plan our lives and the sense of threat often comes from the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen. These situations involve the what-ifs of life. Trying to solve what-ifs can lead to a pattern of negative thinking called rumination, whereby we keep thinking about the problem, without actually coming up with a solution.
What-if questions lead to more what-ifs, and this can result in feeling overwhelmed and helpless. In other words, our imagination begins working against us, not for us. Rather than solving the problem, our imagination enlarges the problem in our mind. The cycle of negative thinking often causes sleep
interruption and can lead to other problems such as depression as we become further absorbed in a state of uncertainty.
People with chronic anxiety tend to overestimate the risks and underestimate their own resources and ability to cope. This results in a passive form of coping called “avoidance” which temporarily reduces anxiety, but also lowers self-confidence so that the anxiety returns. Avoidance can take the form of
procrastination or emotional avoidance such as emotional eating or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
It’s not possible to predict or have control over everything around us. So, it’s not whether we deal with uncertainty, but HOW we deal with it that is important. In other words, the question is not whether we will experience anxiety, but HOW we manage it.
Active coping strategies can help us to deal with uncertainty and anxiety by helping us to think about problems from different perspectives and by taking action to solve problems.
This might involve:
Identifying whether you are over-estimating the risks in the situation.
Putting your anxiety into words, turning it from a feeling into a concrete problem to be solved.
Breaking down the problem into its components.
If you don’t know how to address the problem, get input from others.
Rather than trying to eliminate anxiety, ask yourself: what can I do to reduce the problem to unpleasant but manageable?
Interrupt rumination by asking the question: what does this mean I should actually do?
Persevere, if something doesn’t work, find out what you need to do differently. Sometimes the wisest course of action is to seek help from a professional.
Children have active imaginations, and it is common for them to experience anxiety. Parents can help by teaching children:
How to tell the difference between a real threat versus an imagined one.
How to put fears into words to turn anxiety into a problem to be solved.
How to solve problems rather than avoid them.
How to ask for help if you don’t have the answer to a problem.
How to “self-soothe” and calm down when feeling upset and scared.