Let’s first take a quick look at what anxiety is. Rather than define it, I will list some synonyms that spell out different flavors of anxiety. These include words like nervous, jittery, jiggy, worried, keyed up and dread. At one end it can blur into fear; at another, depression. But unlike depression, it is more of a state of arousal than one of depletion.
Everyone alive has experienced anxiety. Some kinds of anxiety are part of the ordinary functioning of the mind and therefore should not be thought of as a breakdown of anything. We don’t have a great name for this kind of anxiety, but it sometimes gets called “situational anxiety.”
However, there are other forms of anxiety which clearly are a dysfunction, and would it be best if they were addressed with some kind of treatment. Examples of these include panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, and chronic worrying.
Our brains are built to experience anxiety, which is unpleasant but actually a good thing. Anxiety is our warning system. When it is working right, it tells us that something is wrong or that something may be about to go wrong. The discomfort of anxiety is designed to motivate us to take some kind of action to reduce the anxiety. In this way it is similar to pain; we don’t like how it feels, but it certainly gives us important information about what we should and should not be doing.
As with depression, many of our uncomfortable feelings originally served one purpose, but became problematic when faced with our complicated civilization, something they were never intended to deal with. The anxiety system was built for the natural world, but our problems are not predators; they are work problems, interpersonal problems, financial problems, etc. Many of these problems can be very chronic, with no obvious solutions. Ideally there would be some sort of shut-off mechanism so that we could effectively tell our anxiety, “Okay, I understand the problem. There are just isn’t anything else I can do about it right now, so now please leave me alone.” Unfortunately, it probably didn’t suit nature’s purpose to have a switch that turns off the warning system while the problem still exists.
At its most basic level, the advice of “change the things you can change, accept the things you cannot, and be wise enough to know the difference” is excellent advice. Often, though, it’s hard to know what to change, how to change it, and what we might have done to contribute to the problem. Journaling, talking it over with your supports, or seeking psychotherapy can all help. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to come to like the situation or even be emotionally neutral with it. It just means you are not straining and struggling with something that cannot be changed. The term “radical acceptance” means you’re still very unhappy with the situation but are not banging your head against the wall, shaking your fist at the gods.
Do pay attention to your anxiety. If it is “situational,” it is trying to tell you something. In my next several posts, though, I will take a look at some of the kinds of anxiety that are less helpful, more problematic, and might require some kind of intervention.