- Anxiety is actually an evolutionary trait to help us deal with danger.
- We think of it as negative, but we can learn to channel the energy into something positive.
Everyone faces anxiety from time to time. We feel nervous when we’re going to approach someone with an important question, or feel butterflies when we’re about to give a presentation.
The sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat you experience are normally thought of as hindrances to your performance, but we actually developed this response on purpose to react when we were faced with danger.
According to social worker and psychotherapist Amy Morin, this evolutionary trait has stuck with us from the early days of humanity, meaning our responses to everyday situations are sometimes disproportionate.
“Once upon a time I believe [anxiety] served us well, when we were faced with a predator, or in a life or death situation,” Morin told Business Insider. “The body’s natural reaction the fight or flight response tells you you need to do something because you’re in danger, but I think in our modern world, even when we aren’t in danger, you might get that same reaction like it’s a life or death situation.”
For example, if you are about to approach your boss to ask for a raise, your body might start producing adrenaline which puts you on edge.
“When that happens for a lot of us, it’s like these alarm bells go off — false alarms because we’re not actually in danger — but it affects our behaviour,” Morin said. “Then we don’t do those things that are scary because we just don’t like the way that it feels.”
If someone develops an anxiety disorder, they feel anxious all the time, and they don’t necessarily know why, and this can take a toll on them, Morin says. Day to day anxiety doesn’t become a disorder until it starts to affect your daily functioning, such as you can’t go to work or school, or you have trouble socialising.
Regular anxiety, however, can be channelled and used as a tool, Morin says. To do that, you need to start thinking of it objectively. Rather than getting into a downward spiral of feeling anxious and telling yourself you won’t do well as a result, Morin recommends you tell yourself that you are anxious, but that doesn’t mean you can’t perform well too.
“That can take a lot of that subjectivity out of it, and stop the anxious feelings we get and the physiological response that leads to all of this catastrophic thinking and doom and gloom — I’m never going to succeed, it’s never going to go well,” Morin said. “It’s really about getting better control over your thoughts, and being more aware of how it affects your body.”
New research has shown that being anxious doesn’t always have to hurt performance. The study, published in the Journal of Individual Differences found that those who look at a stressful situation as a challenge can gain energy from their anxiety. So instead of dwelling on the fact you feel anxious, try and channel that energy in your body into something positive.
Morin says one way to do this is to have a mantra to help keep the negative thoughts at bay — something that you say to yourself over and over such as “I’ve studied hard for four years, I will do well on this test.”
Another tactic is to re-frame your thoughts and consider what you would say to a friend in the same situation. Morin says we tend to be a lot kinder to our friends and family than we are to ourselves, so think of what advice you would give, and how supportive you would be.
You can also label your emotions. Recognise how you feel and tell yourself what emotions you are feeling, such as if you are anxious, scared, or worried. Acknowledging our feelings is a big part of overcoming them, Morin says.
Finally, she adds that you should find some healthy stress relievers, whether that be exercise, talking to friends, or treating yourself to something to keep your everyday stress down.
“When you can manage your everyday stress, sometimes those little things aren’t as life altering as you think, and it can help keep things in perspective managing your stress level,” Morin said. “I see a lot of people who have anxiety, then worry about having anxiety, and that creates this cycle where they’re anxious about being anxious. But everyday anxiety in life is just part of it, and that’s ok.”
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