Forty percent of adults suffer from anxiety disorder regularly, making it the most common form of mental illness in the U.S.
Experts track the steady rise back to the Great Depression when uncertainty became a defining feeling for the general population. When our brains cannot predict what is next, distress results. The Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IU) developed by Quebec scientists confirms this connection by showing high IU is linked to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and worry.
Factors that make us worry are possible future threats along with the emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety. To that end, those who have difficulty with the groundlessness of life – not knowing what to do, what is coming, or what others are thinking – are far more likely to experience anxiety.
Surprisingly, anxiety can be beneficial in some contexts. When the reward is unknown, people typically get excited and even work harder. However, when the stakes get too high, that excitement can quickly become fear or even terror.
The 3 P’s of Anxiety
So what are the true primary contributors to anxiety? We like to think about it in terms of three Ps.
The greater the gap between where you are and where you want to be, the higher your likely level of anxiety and discontent. When we accept where we are now and don’t strive for external things as a source of happiness, there isn’t much room for anxiety. For example, people working relentlessly to achieve wealth and high esteem hardly ever find peace because their present expectation gap is so large. If that isn’t reason enough to slow down, consider this – working more than 40 hours a week often backfires and even harms our health.
Ask yourself if you’ve established small, manageable milestones toward your goals, and are they truly realistic? Remember that slow and steady wins the race.
Many people often place undue pressure on themselves (e.g., I’m not attractive enough, smart enough, funny enough). These thoughts wreak havoc on our overall state of mind. But even recreational activities like binge-watching a program can ironically make one feel pressured. Also ironic, anxiety releases adrenaline, which is addictive. It is your subconscious need for more anxiety driving your need for those inducing activities.
The great news is you have the agency to defeat anxiety. If life’s uncertainties are impacting your wellbeing, evaluate how you spend your time, and think about what you value most. Once you put those values front and center, permit yourself to walk away from anything and anyone who triggers the most anxiety. Then enrich your life with activities that reduce anxiety, like a 15-minute walk, looking at images and sounds of nature. Self-awareness is the first step here. From there, popping the permission pill will allow you to determine the best next step(s) to improve your mental health.
THE MINDFULNESS SOLUTION
All you need is 10 seconds to disrupt the momentum of stress, and frequent disruption, over time, will diminish anxiety. So, commit to monitoring your stress. This anti-anxiety breathing exercise will stop anxiety dead in its tracks. More mindfulness exercises can be found here.
The expectation gap discussed above can happen in the present moment just as much as it can over several years. When you are feeling anxious, observe where you are and where you want to be like a spectator. Don’t attach yourself to this desire. Then adjust your expectations to align with the present moment, and feel the calm wash over you. To reach an even more peaceful state, take deep breaths to lower your cortisol levels and stress.
What’s more, understanding your triggers is key, and there is an effective tool to accomplish that. Replay the last event that triggered a negative emotional response in slow motion. Sit with the said event as you take slow, deep breaths. Then, write down the answers to the following questions (adapted from Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., author of Buddha’s Brain).
What aspects of the event do you see the most?
Without judgment, observe the emotions and feelings arising, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” On a scale of 1-10, write down the intensity of each sensation.
Pinpoint any other toxic thinking patterns connected to the experience. Again, become the observer, and record any negative self-talk.
Change the narrative you’ve created, and write statements explaining your negative reactions. You can say, “It’s no wonder I canceled my date tonight. I’m telling myself, ‘I’m not interesting enough for him to like me.’” We have power over our thoughts, so only choose those that raise your confidence!
Writing is a great tool to understand how stressful situations impact your state of mind and self-conception. It also invokes accountability and ownership over your behaviors and establishes a baseline to revisit as you evolve.
For additional guidance, seeing a psychologist/counselor or a psychiatrist – if medicine becomes necessary – is an excellent way to get to the root of your anxiety and heal. I always recommend trying mindfulness and other techniques above as free and effective tools to become the best version of yourself.
Know who you are. Be your own coach.
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