Are you anxious or are you rigid?

Opinion: Columns

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By Charles Hughes

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Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people seek counseling. Living with frequent anxiety interferes with sleep and makes routine decisions more difficult. It can be exhausting.

The American Psychiatric Association distinguishes fear from anxiety in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. "Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is the anticipation of future threat." In other words, fear is a response to something that is happening now while anxiety is a response to something that has not occurred. 

Fear typically abates when the threat is past. Since there is always some threat that we can imagine, anxiety can be perpetually present. 

In helping people who experience excessive anxiety, I have noticed that they are often rigid in the way they think about life. They hold beliefs that are hard to challenge. They will often admit that some of their worries are extreme or unrealistic. Yet, without those worries, they see themselves as having no control or way of preparing for what might happen next. They are like a medieval knight who wears his (or her) armor all the time, in case someone attacks. The problem is that armor is heavy and limits what you can do while you are wearing it.

The irony is that these knights may experience more anxiety than other people who are more flexible in their approach to life. These knights may think their armor is protecting them. The reality is that they are perpetually preparing for battle. They keep their nervous systems on high alert. The resulting physical symptoms (muscle tension, nervous stomach, an accelerated heartbeat) are experienced as anxiety.

I do not mean that anxiety is not real. Nor am I suggesting that you can merely think your way out of it. If you are "wired" to feel anxious, putting aside those feelings can seem nearly impossible. 

I am suggesting that you think about anxiety a little differently.

One key to reducing anxiety is flexibility. Anxious people love the words "what if." "What if I get fired?" "What if I say something stupid at the party?"

Try replacing "what if" with "wouldn't it be great if?" 

"Wouldn't it be great if I got fired? I could go find that better job I've been daydreaming about." "Wouldn't it be great if I said something stupid. People will think I fit right in." 

I am suggesting you look at the humor in the situation rather than the worries. Anxious people see threats ahead; confident people see opportunities.

Flexibility is a sense of curiosity and looking at life with a sense of humor. Most of life is uncertain, and there is nothing you can do about that. But you can change the way you think about it. Instead of thinking of life as unpredictable, look at life as full of possibilities. 

Allow yourself to believe you are resourceful enough to handle whatever life sends your way. If you can make this mental shift even part of the time, you will feel less anxious.

Charles Hughes, MA, LCPC, practices as a mental health counselor in downtown Oak Park.

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