If you struggle with anxiety, you’re not alone. It’s rampant. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States, ages 18 and older, every year. Although anxiety is highly treatable, only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.¹
One of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety is that it’s interchangeable with worry. Not so. Anxiety is an emotion. Worrying is a thought process. Anxiety is a normal reaction to feeling out of control. Worrying is a coping strategy, albeit an ineffective one. Anxiety is unavoidable. Worrying is a choice.
It saddens me that so many struggle with incessant worrying, interfering with sleep, disrupting their productivity, making them depressed. It’s so unnecessary! You probably don’t believe me. You probably think I’m selling you “a bill of goods.” But I have conquered worrying and teach others everyday how to do the same.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. The sensation you know as anxiety is your body revving up to protect you from a threatening situation. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but so is touching a hot stove. It’s there for a reason. It’s how most people cope with anxiety that is problematic.
Anytime we feel out of control, we experience anxiety. This is particularly true when we’re emotionally invested in the outcome. For example, if you’re going on a job interview, you would likely feel anxious about making a good impression. If you start getting severe headaches, you would likely feel anxious until you got answers from your doctor. If you’re going on a first date, you would likely feel anxious until you got past the awkward introductions.
Through my years of practice, I have found anxiety is the result of three fears: harm to self or loved ones, rejection or failure. Most people worry because they mistakenly believe it gives them some measure of control. By anticipating the worst, they reason, they’re more likely to avoid it and less likely to be disappointed. But if you lay in bed worrying all night what are you accomplishing? You’re not doing anything to fix the problem.
Consider my analogy of a hand on a hot stove. If your brain doesn’t tell you which part of your body is hurting, you don’t know to pull your hand away! Ask yourself, “What, exactly, am I afraid of?” That I’ll lose my job and become homeless. That I’ll say something wrong and no one will like me. That I’ll be a bad parent and my child will be taken away from me. These are some fears I’ve heard from some of my patients. In my 25yrs of practice, however, I’ve never had a patient tell me that the outcome was worse than they feared. Then they regret stressing themselves out “for nothing.”
Just remember: feelings are not facts, no matter how scary. They are intrinsically irrational. That is why they’re called feelings. And they are often catastrophic in nature. Once you’ve identified your fears, then you can problem-solve. Identify what’s in your control. If you’re afraid of turning in a bad report, forgetting to change a diaper or making an awkward remark, what’s in your control? And also, what’s not in your control? What’s not your responsibility? And what’s unrealistic? Once you’ve done everything in your control, worrying serves no productive purpose but to cause more anxiety.
But worrying is more than a waste of energy. When you worry, you’re either anticipating something bad happening or rehashing something that’s already happened. In other words, you’re not focused in the present moment. Thus, worrying interferes with concentration and productivity, potentially undermining the very thing you’re trying to avoid.
Worrying also undermines happiness. Simply put, you can’t be happy if your mind isn’t focused in the present. Imagine going on a vacation, but the entire time, you’re thinking about work, bills, and chores waiting for you when you return. You wouldn’t feel like you had a vacation.
This is where the technique, mindfulness, is invaluable. It teaches you how to redirect your attention away from worry, back to what we’re doing in the present moment. What usually gets in the way of mastering this technique is not poor concentration. It’s expected you will get distracted. Rather it’s the fear of letting go of an almost magical association in our minds between worrying and preventing bad outcomes.