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Whether scrambling to meet a work deadline or cramming for the MCAT, how you interpret the anxiety-provoking event will determine its outcome.
One thing is certain, anxiety is hard to ignore. When a stressful situation arises, the fight-or-flight response hijacks your body and within seconds, a succession of catastrophic thoughts invade your mind. The physical sensations of a rapid heart rate, tightening in your chest, and feelings of nausea and dizziness trick you into thinking the situation is far worse than it is. Though it may seem like each racing thought has arrows pointing toward the next do-or-die thought, you are not on death’s door or going crazy. You’re likely not having a heart attack, either.
If you don’t learn to tame your lizard brain (responsible for the fight-or-flight response) and work the cognitive-behavioral triangle, you won’t come out on the right side of calm.
Unfortunately, people who succumb to anxiety’s pull remain on the never-ending train of sleepless nights, drastic thoughts and avoidance. Which only prolongs the journey. Sadly, many resist common and proven steps to calm their worries.
When scary thoughts get embedded in the brain, panic buttons warn its host to steer clear of any and all associations of an unpleasant event. Your life becomes narrow, and it impacts those around you. Daily activities revolve around you and making sure you’re safe from uncertainty and discomfort. You lose interest in the world, and you’re not much concerned about the people in your life, either. The negative self-talk ruminations take up most of your days (and nights), and you become self-absorbed.
“I can’t go to the park today because that might trigger another panic attack,” becomes “I can’t be around people. I’m going to stay inside so I can avoid my crushing social anxiety.” Your vernacular resembles “I” messages on steroids. Or, covert narcissism.
“Obviously, paying attention to our wants and needs is appropriate, even necessary. But whether we’re feeling extremely bad or nervous about ourselves, worriedly ruminating about how others perceive us, or indulging in grandiose thoughts about our “specialness,” we’re descending into a state of toxic self-absorption. And as a personality trait, attending excessively to ourselves—and at the expense of almost all other considerations—is typically regarded not only as abnormal but as unethical, too. For such behavior depicts almost the opposite of altruism.” —Leon F. Seltzer
One could argue that anxious people don’t want to be stuck in their heads. Who would want to live in a world where you unintentionally panic yourself? Or risk labels such as selfish, self-obsessed, and self-indulgent? Nobody deserves to suffer.
But a distinction exists between those who commit to anxiety relief and those who do not: a rigid, inflexible mindset and a contemptuous attitude. It presents in the therapy room as withholding, canceling appointments, not wanting to “take in” different interventions, or a frustrated, this-professional-can’t-help-me-either, resigned posture. While everyone’s story is unique and special, anxiety relief is neither unique or special.
So what’s the solution?
Chances are you have tried various calming strategies over time, but if you’re still anxious, you haven’t tried them all. Maybe you gave meditation and deep-breathing a go, but you threw in the towel because calm didn’t come quick enough or you were bored. Perhaps you visited a therapist or two and the relationship didn’t flourish. Maybe you tried medication alone when a holistic approach was warranted.
And therein lies anxiety’s wicked pull: The impulsivity for immediate relief overrides the practice of frustration tolerance; the righteous belief that “nobody gets me” keeps you stuck in rumination; the underlying anger and contempt that’s easier to project onto others rather than work through yourself; the reliance on substances or unhealthy relationships instead of gritting your teeth and viewing your situation differently.
In summary, it’s about getting out of your head and getting into the world around you. Blaming your boss for unrealistic expectations or believing the medical board wants you to fail are always options. But why not do differently instead? Because when you intentionally pay attention to the day’s headline news stories, you probably realize life can be random and cruel. All the more reason to avail yourself of tried-and-true techniques to reduce stress and worries. The world can never have enough caring, compassionate, and kind humans. Anxiety-prone nervous systems be damned.
Copyright 2020 Linda Esposito, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.