Anxiety is a phenomenon that lies deeply embedded in our evolutionary history. It's original function was decidedly protective. Anxiety was meant to stimulate a physical response that allowed us to quickly respond in the face of imminent danger. There are modern day scenarios in which anxiety also serves a beneficial purpose. If we have an exam looming on the horizon, anxiety can provide us with sufficient motivation to study and prepare ourselves to do well. Driving on an icy road is cause for anxiety which helps us to be cautious and drive safely. However, many of our modern scenarios involve maladaptive anxiety. To help us understand some of the components of anxiety I will use ABC as an acronym.
Alarm An alarm or a trigger alerts us to the fact that something seems wrong, or in many cases, that something might go wrong. This signal can be factual and accurate, but more often than not, our warning system is over-reactive and exaggerated. It can be like a car alarm that was accidentally set off and continues to blare annoyingly in the background. Being flooded with false alarms robs us of valuable energy we need to focus and respond to situations that actually require our attention.
Belief The alarm causes us to form a belief or opinion about the situation. The belief can be arbitrary and be based on false information. Our evaluation of the situation occurs instantaneously and on a subconscious level. For example, I used to have an extreme phobia of snakes. Even encountering a completely harmless garter snake while walking in the woods would send my sympathetic nervous system into full panic mode. Through several hypnotherapy sessions, my fear has shrunk down to a tolerable level. My daughter, who is a scientist, has a completely opposite response to snakes because her belief is that they are fascinating creatures to be studied. This demonstrates the fact that it is not the situation itself, but our belief about the situation that creates anxiety.
Coping How you respond to your belief is the deciding factor of how well you are able to cope with the anxiety-provoking situation. Do you take a deep breath and attempt to respond calmly, or do you freak out? In my case, with the snake situation, I definitely did the latter. My response was usually to go into a completely frozen state. On the outside, I literally was unable to move. On the inside, my heart was pounding and felt like it would jump out of my chest.
Changing your beliefs about a certain situation can transform how you perceive the alarm that triggered your anxiety. In my case, I now fully recognize that there is nothing harmful about garter snakes. I no longer freak out when I encounter one. They are still not my favorite things, but my change in beliefs has allowed me to go on hikes in the forest without an underlying fear of meeting up with a snake. Mental alarms can trigger beliefs that lead us down a downward spiral of anxiety. By challenging these beliefs in a calm, rational manner, we can find ways to cope with the anxious feelings in a positive way.