Anxiety: Friend or foe?

Racing heart?

Tempted to call in sick just to avoid that big meeting?

Feeling anxious about getting anxious just when you need it least?

Anxiety is a normal human emotion, one we are hardwired to notice as it can help keep us safe. Yet for up to 45% of Australian’s this ‘helpful’ emotion becomes the enemy.

Each of us experience anxiety in a different way, and the things that scare us vary. Whether we are afflicted by social anxiety, panic, or crippling worry there is often one common experience. Fear of fear. People who seek treatment for anxiety often talk not just about their fear of public speaking, but about the anxiety they experience about becoming anxious.

This fear of fear leads people to worry weeks in advance not just about a particular event, but also about their ability to cope with the anxiety they predict they will feel. They view anxiety as the enemy, and will do just about anything to fight this beast. Common battle tools are avoidance, medication, alcohol, or drugs.

Ironically research actually suggests that anxiety is necessary for peak performance. In fact, there is a whole adventure industry built around people who seek this experience. So it can’t be all bad… right?

As you can see, performance is highest when we experience a moderate amount of anxiety. When we see anxiety as the enemy however, we can quickly tip ourselves over the edge. We tend to focus in on the physical symptoms which distract us from the task. We worry that others will notice. And ultimately we worry that anxiety will mean we can’t cope or perform.  Gentle butterflies and a fluttering heart can quickly become overwhelming when we react in a “oh no, its anxiety” way.

When anxiety becomes overwhelming like this, its power as our enemy is huge. It steals joy from special moments, it stops us from seeking new jobs or relationships, and interferes with us being our authentic selves. And frustratingly, those tools we use for battle don’t help. Often they make it worse.

So what can you do? There are many strategies for managing anxiety. Learning breathing and relaxation strategies to manage the physical symptoms can be a big help. Learning to recognise and challenge unhelpful thinking by asking yourself questions like “how likely is that?” and “will it really matter in five years?” and the best treatment of all for anxiety is facing your fears.

While this can feel very overwhelming and may require the support of a psychologist, starting to think about anxiety differently is a great start. Recent research has even suggested that rather than trying to calm yourself, you can harness your anxiety, by instead focusing on feeling excited and using this as an emotion to drive your performance forwards. So next time your old friend anxiety comes to visit how about inviting it along for the ride to help you out rather than letting it barricade you indoors.

For a real life example of how facing your fears, and embracing anxiety can overtime help you overcome it, read Lauren’s remarkable story: Travel changed my life.

Tom Morley