That’s right there is an equation for anxiety.
It is as follows: Anxiety= Estimation of danger/Estimation of coping skills
I love a good equation, especially when it comes to something as complicated as the human psyche.
Let me explain it- anxiety occurs when either the danger of the situation outweighs the number of coping skills you have OR (and this is probably more likely) anxiety occurs when there is an overestimation of the danger of a situation and an underestimation of our ability to cope.
Just like when we learnt maths in school getting a handle on either side of the equation is necessary. If my estimation of danger was about 10, but I have 976 coping skills. I am going to be able to manage my anxiety.
If I only had 8 coping skills, well the estimation of danger is greater, and my anxiety is going to peak.
So, the more coping skills we can have in our toolkit to better the changes of managing our anxiety.
We can either change our perception of what seems dangerous so it no longer feels threatening (thus, no more intrusive anxiety), or we can learn better, healthier, more effective ways to cope when it does (thus, no more intrusive anxiety).
In other words, if something doesn’t seem threatening, we don’t feel anxious. Or if it does seem threatening, but we know how we’ll deal with it, we don’t feel anxious.
Let’s have a look at how overestimation can occur.
Our brain doesn’t know the difference between a serious life threat and the ones that trigger our insecurities. Our brain is treating both threats in the same way. It prepares us to run or fight for our life (fight or flight response).
Whether it’s one of the Tiger King’s big cats at your door or finding out after queueing for the supermarket for 45 minutes that they have run out of toilet paper. I realise that latter is damn terrible, however, it is not (in itself) a life-threatening incident.
Our brain overreacts to non-life-threatening situation. This makes us experts at overestimating danger.
When we have triggered our fight of flight response, our frontal lobes become temporarily offline and engage solely in this response. We lose the ability to reason in a calm and effective manner.
Instead of our brain helping us gain perspective it generates multiple possible outcomes and is rehashing negative memories from our past, thinking that it is helping us.
This explains why we only need one single fear-based thought before we find ourselves suddenly falling head first down a thought-based rabbit hole of the worst possible kind, without the ability to step away and reassess the situation.
So how can we learn to manage our overestimation-
- Be kind to ourselves- you aren’t doing anything wrong just our brain’s want us to pay attention to the thing in our mind.
- Write down the thing that has happened and the fear thought that came with it.
- Notice if you have had this fear thought before.
- Write down what you think is going to happen.
- Write down the evidence for that outcome.
- Write down the evidence against that outcome (was this this thought as bad as you had feared?)
- Now, based on the (for and against) evidence, write out a new more likely outcome.
Coping Skills toolkit
We can all develop our coping skills just by adding more to our list, these are three ways that through research proves to calm our nervous system.
- Learn breathing exercises
Deep breathing…I know it sounds cheezie and cliché, but it does trigger our relaxation response.
We have all heard it- just snap out of it, but our brain has had thousands of years to develop its own effective way to keep us safe, it is not just going to allow us to overcome this system. This is a technique we must learn. We need to practice switching off the response when we are calm, over and over so that it becomes second nature and we can then use it as part of our coping skills in an anxious event.
- Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness takes practice, and we probably will experience some resistance in the beginning. We must push through this. Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, without judgement.
With time, we can start to recognise when our automatic survival response occurs. We will learn to notice the sensations and thoughts come up in your mind and body. Further to this, we can learn to separate ourselves, becoming a passive observer, able to come back to the present moment at any time. We can then decide how to respond rather than being a slave to our fight-or-flight response- we make better decisions and make them not directly from our ego.
For example, imagine you are in a social situation, you have just said something and the person opposite you doesn’t agree. Your brain will switch on the fight-or-flight, emotions will flood your body, thoughts occur including “they don’t like me”, “I said something wrong”. Then you will want to run away, stop speaking, become paranoid or even respond with cruelty. The reality is that there are many, many possible reasons that they don’t agree, the majority of which have nothing to do with you or your comment. However, your brain hasn’t rationalised it, has sensed danger and has prepared you to survive.
Mindfulness would help us to recognise what was happening and will equip us with the tools to step back from the automatic response and decide, what can I do to make this situation less traumatic for myself?
There are many misconceptions surrounding mindfulness- For example, people think that mindfulness is about clearing the mind, like a form of meditation. But some people find it hard to clear their mind and felt they had failed at it and then understandably stopped. Mindfulness is about noticing the thoughts and bringing ourselves back to the present moment, over and over, with time it does become easier and will become an automatic response.
- Remind yourself that you are safe
It is important to understand the physiology behind anxiety as this will reduce some of the fears and the catastrophic misinterpretation of physical feelings that can occur, such as, “my chest is tight I am having a heart attack”, “my thoughts won’t stop, I must be going mad”, “I feel dizzy, I am going to faint”.
When anxiety causes your stomach to feel weird or your chest to feel tight, imagine telling yourself “I am medically safe. This is my body preparing to run or fight. That is all”.
Over time the head-heart shift will occur. This means that it will go from something you can know in your head when calm, to something you believe in your heart at any time, even when stressed- thus reducing our anxiety.
There are of course many more ways you can expand your coping skills toolkit- such as educating ourselves by listening to podcasts or reading books.