Anxiety, friend or foe?
We all deal with stress and anxiety. Not only that, we interact with people who are stressed and anxious everyday, whether we want to or not! In fact, research shows that one in three people deal with anxiety in the clinical definition of the word. That means that one in three people frequently experience intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.
Anxiety causes our bodies to react to everyday situations as if they were life threatening events. Think about times when you had to give a presentation at work, for example. You get nervous beforehand and it causes you to mess up in your presentation. Maybe you forget words, get flustered, drop your papers or the projector remote; mistakes you wouldn’t make if you weren’t feeling anxious.
If we were to deconstruct this process and take a look at it, here’s what we would see:
Thinking about the presentation → Have a negative thought, “what if they don’t like it” → Anxiety response
The anxiety response is an involuntary reaction. Once it gets triggered, our bodies are flooded with chemicals and hormones like adrenaline, causing our pupils to dilate, our blood flow to increase 300-400% while moving closer to the surface of our skin, an increase in our heart rate, and so on. While these changes can cause us to blush, feel sweaty, clammy or shaky, these physiological changes also prepare our bodies to fight. We commonly refer to this process as the fight, flight or freeze response. The problem is, there isn’t a real threat. The anxiety has tricked our mind to believe there is a threat when one doesn’t exist. The result, we become aggressive or combative with ourselves or others.
What we know is that having some stress increases our performance. However, when it reaches a certain point, like the example above, our performance goes down. So, how do we keep our level of anxiety at a reasonable level so we can keep our performance up? Here are some ideas to keep in mind:
1. Keep your thoughts in check. Instead of thinking “what if they don’t like it” think about, “I can do my best” or “I’ve given presentations in the past and they have gone well.” You can manage what you think about so make sure your thoughts are helpful.
2. Anxiety invites us to selectively focus on the negative while ignoring the positive, so check your thoughts against factual information from the situation, both positive and negative. That way you can come up with a more balanced and helpful thought.
3. Don’t avoid situations that cause you worry. While this decreases anxiety in the moment, it increases anxiety over the long term and accentuates the feeling of powerlessness.
4. Be prepared. Feeling prepared for a situation, like a presentation, helps lower anxiety.
5. Think of the best and worst case scenarios and then make a plan for the worst case scenario. Even though it probably won’t happen, it is reassuring to have one in place.
6. Remember the statistic that more than 85% of what we worry about never happens and when it does, it’s almost never as bad as we imagined it would be.
Anxiety can be a helpful friend in small doses because it helps you to focus. However, keep it in check as best you can so it doesn’t work against you. Knowing that we can manage our thoughts gives us power over ourselves and can stop the anxiety response from hijacking our performance.