The Anxiety Equation

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 pretty 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-

  1. 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. 
  2. Write down the thing that has happened and the fear thought that came with it. 
  3. Notice if you have had this fear thought before. 
  4. Write down what you think is going to happen.
  5. Write down for evidence forthat outcome. 
  6. Write down the evidence againstthat outcome (was this this thought actually as bad as you had feared?)
  7. 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.

  1. Learn breathing exercises- I know this can sound really cheezie and cliché, but it triggers our relaxation response. 

I’m sure we have all been told “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.  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 in an anxious event. 

  • Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness takes practice, it means paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally.  There are lots of apps and classes that dedicate themselves to teaching people how to be mindful through guided meditations.

Why is this relevant?  After practising mindfulness for some time, you start to recognise when your automatic survival response is occurring.  You learn to notice the sensations and thoughts come up in your mind and body.  You also learn to separate yourself from this, becoming a passive observer, able to come back to the present moment at any time.  You now get to decide how to respond rather than being a slave to your fight-or-flight response.

For example, imagine you are in a social situation, you have just said something and the person opposite you frowns.  Your brain switches on the fight-or-flight, emotions flood your body, thoughts occur including “they don’t like me”, “I said something wrong”.  Suddenly you want to run away, stop speaking, or even respond with cruelty.  The reality is that there are many, many possible reasons for their frown, the majority of which have nothing to do with you or your comment.  However, your brain doesn’t care about that.  It has sensed danger and has prepared you to survive.  

With mindfulness, you would recognise that all this was happening and instead have the tool to step back from the automatic response and decide, what do I want to do?  Most of the time you then just notice your automatic response and move on to the next present moment.  

There are also a lot of misconceptions about mindfulness out there.  For example, people often tell me that mindfulness is about clearing the mind.  Whenever I hear this I feel sad.  This is one of the main reasons I hear from people who tried mindfulness and said it wasn’t for them.  They tried it, couldn’t clear their mind, felt like they had failed and then understandably stopped.  You cannot just clear your mind; your mind does not want to be cleared!  That is not possible.  Mindfulness is about noticing the thoughts and bringing yourself back to the present moment, over and over.  Over time it will get easier.  It’s like a muscle, the more you practice the stronger that muscle will become, and it will be easier to let thoughts go.

  • Remind yourself that you are safe

It is important to understand the physiology behind anxiety.  This will remove some of the fear 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.

Also, knowing the physiology means you can recognise when the feelings are starting to creep in and know that it is time to act.

There are of course many more ways you can expand your coping skills toolkit- such as listening to podcasts or reading books. 

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