Is Anxiety Always A Negative Emotion?
A common misconception is that anxiety is always a negative emotion, something utterly bad for us and deeply personal. When we are anxious, the feeling seems to be that there is something wrong with us. Every impulse of fear and apprehension undermines our sense of self worth, creating an inner dialogue of inadequacy.
We feel trapped with this feeling that seems to have no purpose other than to make us feel bad.
But did you know anxiety isn’t just some modern condition that cropped up out of nowhere to plague an unfortunate segment of the population? Nor is it always something that’s a negative response to life.
Where did anxiety come from?
The impulse for anxiety stems from millions of years of conditioning. It was created to help us survive in a world that was much more savage than what we are used to:
“Life as cave people required constant threat assessment. There probably wasn’t much time to smell the flowers. We were concerned about predators, including other humans. Survival required such a rigorous monitoring of one’s circumstances that the brain evolved to accommodate it.”
That’s right. A part of our brain called the amygdala works to make sure we feel safe and has been doing this job since the prehistoric era. It uses anxiety as a monitoring system to make sure we are aware of any potential threats. The amygdala’s ability to trigger anxiety can be immediate, especially when anything even remotely seems similar to a past trauma.
The modern problem is that the threats we face today are usually entirely different than those in the prehistoric era. And our predators tend to not be as contained and clear as getting chased by a dinosaur would be. This creates a prolonged and sometimes unending source of anxiety with no known exact cause.
Instead of real tigers, we’re facing what some mental health professionals refer to as paper tigers. So as you can see, the tendency to be anxious predates your own personal story. Our own brains haven’t caught up to how life has changed. And to some extent, we’re stuck in some genetic adaptation phase that has nothing to do with what you think your personal shortcomings are.
Is anxiety always negative?
Like most things, anxiety is not absolutely bad. As I already mentioned, it does have its uses.
As a therapist, I strive to help my clients distinguish between healthy and clinically distressing anxiety. This is essential not only to lessen the burden of being anxious but also help determine when it’s time to manage any unhealthy fears.
For instance, it’s healthy to be nervous before trying something new. What will this new experience bring? Will I be good at it? Am I going to get hurt? Is it worth trying this new thing? Sometimes it is healthy to decide not to try something new. (i.e. scuba diving with no education or training).
However, when fear prevents us from trying new things that are reasonably within our grasp, this is when anxiety becomes unhealthy. Of course some things will have inherent risk and part of life is putting ourselves out there, hopefully in an intelligent and purposeful way. But if anxiety cripples you from doing relatively benign or everyday things, there’s a problem.
What can I do to manage anxiety?
In regards to unhealthy anxiety, it is important not to internalize your anxiety and make it a part of your personal identity. Externalizing it, on the other hand, can help you manage and sometimes conquer anxiety.
Although managing anxiety is best achieved with the help of a trained therapist, there are some things you can try at home. Meditation is a great way to decrease anxiety as the paper tiger article suggests. But there are other, often overlooked ways to address anxiety.
Using your senses like touch and taste have a profound effect on the nervous system. Our senses are deeply intertwined with how we think and feel. For instance, the memory center of our brain has a direct line with our sense of smell. This is why certain scents can bring about vivid memories.
Here are some tips on how you can manage anxiety at home by using your senses:
- Smell something like scented candles or lotions. You can even go somewhere you think smells nice like a public garden, store, or coffee shop.
- Use your sense of sight by looking through magazines, visit a place you like to look at, or get artsy and draw, paint or create something.
- Listen to soothing music or the sounds outside your window.
- Taste some gum, drink something warm, or slowly eat a piece of fruit.
- Touch a comfortable piece of cloth, pet your animal, or grip a stress ball. Studies have shown that petting an animal can lower high blood pressure.
All of these are great ways to reduce anxiety at home or on your own. Always be open to creating your own methods or specific ways to utilize your senses because you’re the expert in you!
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.
Please let me know if you have any questions. I’d love to help you!