By Christopher Mogan, Charles H. Elliott, Laura L. Smith

Anxiety has many faces. One of these faces is functioning as a normal emotion that keeps you alert and responsive to your environment and its challenges. For example, a person preparing to make a presentation will have a normal state of arousal or nervousness that is anxiety-based. This is necessary to provide an optimal energy and activity level to make the experience a positive and productive one for the speaker. Going into such a situation without preparation creates the real risk of not being able to perform at an optimal level.

When you avoid challenges or make excuses about being unavailable for a function, such actions can be anxiety-based and usually come under the category of safety behaviours. When you’re over-sensitive to anxiety, you might use safety behaviours to avoid, escape or reduce the feelings of anxiety.

Trying to overcome excessive or problem anxiety using safety behaviours doesn’t work because you never learn that you’re safe and can adapt to a situation that appears to be difficult. People become over-sensitive to anxiety so that a situation can seem to be worse than it really is. They see themselves as unable to manage the perceived problem, and they sense that nothing else can be done to help them.

One key adaptive strategy is to accept that anxiety is part of your experience. The busy life you lead creates many demands, stretches your coping skills, and leads to feelings of fatigue, stress and wanting to avoid or escape from additional pressure.

When struck by an emotional setback, it’s helpful to have a key phrase or two in mind that can help you stabilise. Think of the word ‘AWARE’ as a useful acronym:

  • A = Accept and acknowledge that you’re stressed or anxious. Then take a step back and see that anxiety as only part of you.

  • W = Watch the level of anxiety and try to rate the intensity of the anxiety you’re feeling. Is it a strong feeling with clear symptoms? Is it moderate stress that can still be managed? Is it a low level with hardly any distress?

  • A = Act ‘as if’ the anxiety is manageable. You know that there are moments when you don’t allow the feelings within to show on the surface. For example, someone unexpectedly rings the doorbell while you and your loved one are having an animated discussion with raised voices and strained emotions. By the time you reach the front door you’re able to greet the unexpected visitor without showing a trace of the anger that’s still very close to the surface.

  • R = Repeat ideas such as, ‘I’m anxious, yes but it’s only part of me’. Take a step back and watch the level of anxiety so that your response will be in line with the intensity of the feeling. Try to sit with the anxiety as though it’s manageable and under control.

  • E = Expect anxiety to happen again, because it’s part of your life. You’re not trying to avoid an escape from anxiety all the time, rather you want to have skills and attitudes that keep anxiety in perspective and help you to understand that being anxious is part of a normal response set.

    It’s not whether or not you experience anxiety, rather it’s how you react to it, what sets it off, how long it lasts, and whether it’s interfering with your self-esteem and relationships.

Try to think of anxiety as being a positive in the sense of being at your best when you’re ‘switched on’ or ‘in the zone’. You’re more productive when you can say to yourself, ‘Expect a little anxiety at the beginning, but know it will pass just as predicted’.

Learn ways of reducing anxiety sensitivity and its accompanying catastrophic outcomes. Exercise, hobbies and ‘stepping back’ to put things in perspective are valuable ways of experiencing anxiety as an expected part of your life.