Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
ANXIETY – an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. (American Psychological Association)
If you have frequent anxiety symptoms that are impairing your ability to function then you would benefit from knowing the 3 Amigo’s that increase ANXIETY’s power along with 3 effective ways to counteract their impact.
Avoidance is ANXIETY’s best friend. When you avoid something you are telling your body that it’s dangerous and you can’t handle it. For example, if you have ANXIETY regarding public speaking and avoid speaking in public whenever you are asked, then you are training your body and mind to perceive public speaking as a threat and your ANXIETY increases correspondingly.
Emotions generate two basic impulses: APPROACH or AVOID. LOVE & LUST are approach emotions while DISGUST & FEAR are avoidance emotions.
When we follow through on the impulse of an emotion we increase the power of that emotion. This is one of the reasons why listening to ANXIETY’s avoidance impulse makes your ANXIETY more powerful. It is also one of the reasons why one of the most powerful treatments for ANXIETY is to intentionally do the opposite of the avoidance impulse through exposure therapy.
If you have moderate ANXIETY right now ask yourself – “What am I trying to avoid right now?”
The opposite of avoidance is showing up and being present. Showing up is a huge first step, however, in order to help regulate ANXIETY you also have to be present. Being present means, not only physically showing up, but also being conscious and aware of what is going on.
If you show up to something that normally provokes ANXIETY and you get distracted by thought storms, your attention is elsewhere and thus you may be physically present but mentally you are avoiding whatever is eliciting ANXIETY in you.
In my article ‘Getting out of your mind and into your Senses’ I go over specific skills you can develop to help keep your attention from getting ensnared by thought storms.
Presence is your physical presence + your attention oriented towards your direct experience. You are aware of what is going on in your current direct experience and you’re NOT letting your attention drift off into fortune-teller mode -> trying to predict the future -> which is one of the main cognitive patterns that drives worrying and more ANXIETY.
Closely related to presence is the Being Mode. The two complement each other. When you are simply being (rather than doing) you are more likely to not get distracted which allows the sense of presence to emerge. For more information on learning how to enter and cultivate the being mode – check out my article ‘To Be or Not To Be: Your well-being hangs in the balance’ .
Recent neuroscience has shed new insights on how we perceive the world.
Your mind is built to predict & anticipate the next moment.
It was once thought that our minds simply receive stimuli from the outside world and then react to them. Stimulus -> response. If I throw a ball at you, your eyes receive the changing light reflecting off the ball which is then processed by your visual programs. This information is then sent to different processing centers that ultimately send information to your muscle response programs which orchestrate your muscles to catch the ball.
The simple stimulus – response model for perceiving and responding to the world is simply too slow to respond to the complex and innumerable stimuli that are bombarding your senses every second.
One modern model on how you perceive the world is called the predictive coding model.
In the predictive coding model, your senses receive raw sensory information from the environment that is then continuously compared to simulated anticipated and desired states that are derived from your past conditioning.
According to the predictive coding model, when I throw a ball at you, your eyes receive the changing light reflecting off the ball and that information is then compared to information simulated from previous times when you have caught a ball along with information on how to best achieve the desired state to catch the ball. Comparisons between observed and anticipated states are continuously made and whenever there is a discrepancy or gap between the two, your mind makes the appropriate maneuvers to close the gap including motivating your muscle actions to put you in the position to catch the ball (desired state).
The discrepancy or gap between the immediate incoming raw sensory information and the simulated expected or desired states (models derived from past experiences in similar contexts) is called a prediction error.
Prediction errors motivate your body and mind to make adjustments in order to reduce or eliminate the gap between the observed and expected states. The larger and more frequent the predictions errors that you experience, the more likely you will receive uncomfortable signals from your mind. These unpleasant signals act like a series of mental cattle prods that motivate you to close the gap.
The more arrhythmia in your life experiences, the more likely your mind will make extensive prediction errors with greater frequency. This leads to more distressing signals being generated by your body which feeds your ANXIETY making it stronger.
Your mind is built to expect and anticipate. It is doing this constantly – most often below your conscious awareness.
If you were to eat breakfast consistently at 9:00am and we measured your stomach acid production and digestive enzyme secretion at 8:58am, then we would observe them both increasing before you would put one bite of food in your mouth.
Think about it from a business perspective. If you owned a hot dog stand and every Friday you would get twice the demand than you would normally get on other days, you would start anticipating this increased demand and be ready to match it when the next Friday comes.
Anticipating accurately is one of the most important skills that influences your biological success. Frequently, it is the deciding factor between you getting to a desired state vs. someone else.
Increasing the level of consistency in your life is a powerful way to sharpen your anticipation skills and reduce the amount and severity of prediction errors that your mind needs to resolve.
I suggest starting with bookending your day with a morning and nighttime ritual to help increase the level of consistency in your day. In my article ‘5 Powerful Ways to Build Sustainable Brain Energy: Part 1’ I go over how to create a nighttime ritual which would be an excellent place to start.
When patients tell me that they are anxious about something, one of the first questions I ask them is, “What are you worried about?” The response I often get is something non-specific such as, “I am worried about my finances” or “I am worried about my job performance.”
It’s often the case that we don’t explore, in any significant depth, the things that tend to make us anxious. One of the main reasons why this happens is that when we get anxious we tend to avoid what we are anxious about. This avoidance prevents us from understanding the precise challenge that we are facing.
In order to handle challenges more effectively, we need to know specifically what we are facing. If we turn away from our challenges and only have non-specific ideas about them, then this ambiguity severely handicaps our abilities to develop viable plans to handle the issues that we are facing.
Both ambiguity and arrhythmia increase the amount of uncertainty/chaos that we experience and this in turn increases the potential ANXIETY we may experience.
Whenever you are anxious ask yourself, “What specifically am I anxious about?” If you are anxious about your job performance, what precisely about your job performance is bothering you? Are you showing up late? Are you falling behind on your tasks? Are you having trouble communicating with your boss?
It has been said that understanding your problem is 50% of the solution. Before you can solve a problem you need to know exactly what the problem is. It’s wise to write your problem down. After you write the issue down, spend time examining how you can break it up into smaller more manageable pieces.
The 3 Keys to Problem Solving: Skills – Knowledge – Resources
Once you have broken the problem down into more specific components ask yourself these 3 key questions:
1) Are there any SKILLS that I need to develop in order to handle this problem?
2) Is there any KNOWLEDGE that I would need to acquire to help me address this problem?
3) Are there any RESOURCES (people, applications, etc…) that can be used to help me to overcome this problem?
Write down your responses and then organize them into an action plan.
The 3 Amigos of ANXIETY are major factors that give tremendous power and influence to your ANXIETY. By learning how to be more present, more consistent, and more clear you will effectively reduce the main power sources feeding your ANXIETY and significantly increase peace and well-being in your life.