Anxiety is not your enemy. Here's how to make it your friend.
Hear me out. When I say, "anxiety is not your enemy," I don't mean that anxiety is not important to address, or that you deserve to keep suffering through it. It really sucks to feel plagued by broken-record worries, to feel paralyzed by nervousness in situations that other people find fun, or to feel overwhelmed by stress that comes in unrelenting tidal waves. I've got plenty of personal experience with anxiety, so I know it's not fun. I also have helped many patients successfully overcome anxiety, so I know you're not doomed to fight it forever.
Overcoming a problem always starts with understanding it, and understanding anxiety starts with knowing its side of the story.
Why does anxiety exist? Let's start all the way back with our ancestors.
Caveman Joe was picking berries one day, when he heard a rustle from behind a bush. Was it the wind? Or a saber tooth tiger? Without knowing the answer, Joe feels a sudden rush through his body--his heart pounds faster, he gets sweaty, his muscles get tense, and all his senses go on hyper alert.
Does this sound familiar? This is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system (or the "fight-or-flight" reaction). Joe survived (and later reproduced) because his body so quickly and automatically turned on this alarm, which allowed him to run away in time. If he didn't have this reaction, Joe could have been dinner.
Clearly, anxiety was helpful for Joe. It acted as an alarm system that helped him survive the savannah, and it continues to help us survive modern society (like when a car honk jacks up your fight-or-flight and prompts you to jump out of the way).
But what about when things that shouldn't make us anxious do, and it gets in the way of a fulfilling life? This is the tricky part. Sometimes we react to public speaking as if it's a saber tooth tiger, even though it's not literally life-threatening. Or we're dogged by worries about our career, even though not getting a promotion is, again, not literally life-threatening.
First, let's cut anxiety some slack here. Your sympathetic nervous system's motto is "better safe than sorry." It's trying to help. But it's not very good at discerning real immediate danger from problems that merely need solving (or accepting).
The good news is: You have an opportunity to work with your anxiety to find a productive balance of safety and ease. Here's what to do:
1. Don't avoid things that make you anxious.
If a parent keeps shrinking from dogs in front of his toddler, what does the toddler learn? Of course, that dogs are dangerous. If you keep shrinking from confronting your roommate about the dishes, your brain learns that confrontations are always dangerous. This belief gets stronger every time you avoid, and the only way for your brain to unlearn it is to approach the feared situation. Each time you approach, your brain learns, "Oh, this isn't so bad," or, "Well that sucked, but I got through it." Over time, that "toddler" (your sympathetic nervous system) will become less trigger-happy with the fight-or-flight alarm.
2. Don't avoid the feeling of anxiety.
If a toddler is throwing a tantrum because she wants ice cream, and you quiet her down by giving her ice cream, what does the toddler learn? That throwing a tantrum gets you ice cream, of course. If you keep rewarding your brain's fight-or-flight reaction by giving it sweet, sweet relief (e.g., that "phew" after declining to give the wedding toast), then it will keep jacking up the alarm reaction in the future. Be firm and gentle with your "toddler" and let her tantrum for a while. I promise, it will peter out, and each time, things will calm down faster.
3. Don't avoid (seeing a pattern yet?) losing control.
Every day, we're at the whim of a million things that we can't control. If we cut those out of our lives, we would live very narrow, inflexible lives that may be "safer," but not as rich and fulfilling. If letting go of control is hard for you, try an experiment: Purposely leave a decision to someone else, purposely leave out one logistical detail in a plan, or purposely refrain from making a to-do list today. See what happens. Was it so bad? If it was, did you survive it?
The bottom line is: Anxiety is your friend. He's not the smartest friend you've got, because he's not great at nuance and moderation. But he's working hard and always trying to help. You can get on the same team by compassionately and patiently teaching your brain when anxiety is useful versus hampering. The best way to do this is to approach instead of avoid. Go ahead--I challenge you to approach one thing today that you've been putting off, and to welcome your anxiety with open arms!