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

Part of Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies Cheat Sheet (Australian/New Zealand Edition)

Excessive anxiety brings intense emotions, worrying thoughts and physical tension. Most people are able to physically locate the focal point of their stress, like tension in the jaw or across the forehead, tight muscles across the chest, upset stomach or restless sleep. Whilst self-soothing strategies play a role in dealing with excessive anxiety, the mistake made too often is trying to get rid of all anxiety and not understanding that anxiety is a normal emotion that plays an adaptive role in everyday life.

So, people try to avoid or control anxiety with the ‘just in case’ anti-anxiety pill kept in the purse for months on end, steering clear of situations perceived as anxiety-provoking or worrying constantly as a coping mechanism. Too often, problem anxiety triggers impulsive and compulsive symptoms like binge eating, reckless shopping or skin-picking that are reactive and unhelpful.

Normal functioning requires you to accept the anxiety that is present at a productive intensity:

  • See anxiety more positively, describing it as being ‘switched on’ or ‘alertly aware’ to discover if such productive anxiety enables predictable and helpful responses. If you could achieve this kind of balanced intensity, would you think differently about anxiety? Would it be okay if you could learn to make anxiety work for you? For example, giving you energy for planning or helping you to be calm in the face of threat. Would you try to take a step back, to see what you would learn if you were to see yourself as others see you? Would you ask yourself, ‘How would a wise friend you know handle this challenge?’

  • Train yourself not to avoid all risks, rather become more skilful and adaptive in dealing with risks, and learn from this experience so that you have a growing confidence in your strategic capacity to manage anxiety.

Problem anxiety strikes quickly in specific ways, such as:

  1. Exaggerating issues, making them appear worse than they really are.

    When you might have a challenging issue, the wise mind counters this effect. It’s not helpful to turn a problem into a catastrophe.

  2. Losing confidence in your capacity to handle things, bringing uncertainty, doubt and indecisiveness.

    You can be ‘frozen’ by anxiety and the steps you take are unclear and confusing.

  3. Feeling unstable.

    Uncertainty, threat and fear lead the over-anxious person to conclude that no-one else can help with the situation at hand and that nothing would make any difference. Therefore, anxiety and worry become chronic and resistant to treatment.

    Avoidance, escape and other safety-seeking methods don’t resolve anxiety problems. Anxiety will shift in intensity over time if you’re able to build a model for understanding how anxiety works for you.

  4. Struggling to think clearly.

    If you get too anxious or worried, you can’t think clearly and your mind becomes unregulated and over-wrought. Practice slowing down your fast-acting survival brain, and allow your calmer, slower mind to process what you’re experiencing.

    When your mind is working in a regulated fashion you will thrive — options become clearer, the memory draws on learnings from previous experiences, curiosity and engagement are stimulated, and you make better and more responsible decisions.

Contemporary psychology provides strategic responses to problem anxiety that are effective and well-researched. Evidence shows that they work for the majority of people in most situations. Challenging confused thinking, slowing down the mind and body through mindfulness, and staying engaged with your world helps to overcome interfering anxiety symptoms. Learning to think clearly about anxiety reduces the onset of ‘false alarms’, over-reaction and panic.