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5 Reasons Why You Should Embrace Anxiety (Myths Debunked)

5 Reasons Why You Should Embrace Anxiety (Myths Debunked)

You have what we call, generalized anxiety disorder,” my doctor said.

After years of unending worry, I had decided to talk to my doctor about what I’d been feeling. I always felt worried about things going wrong and people being angry with me. Other people seemed so much more relaxed than me. Why? Was there a different way of thinking? Was there a different way to handle stress?

And while sometimes my anxiety still gets the best of me, and every day can be a HUGE challenge, once I accepted I was a naturally anxious person and began learning to work with it instead of against it, my life improved greatly.

You may feel the same way, thinking: “Oh I wish I wasn’t so nervous on dates,” or, “Why can’t I just be ready to go for that job interview?”; or, “Why do I incessantly worry about needless crap?”

But everyone feels anxiety, it’s just that some people are better at dealing with it and turning it into positive action, whereas others get paralyzed by it and worry about things for days.

How can you learn to embrace anxiety?

1. “Being anxious and being excited feel eerily similar”

One day when I was asking a friend for advice on moving abroad, he said this to me. It makes sense: with both excitement and anxiety you feel butterflies in your stomach, you shake or vibrate with energy, and you are anticipating something.

The difference is that one propels you forward, and one keeps you held back in fear.

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When you look at something and feel anxious, try to also see the part that could be making you feel excited. In fact, studies have shown that doing this can improve your performance in situations you are worrying about … not to mention the fact that it will make you much happier.

For example, you might get nervous about going on a first date. It makes sense: you want them to like you and you want it to go well. But you’re probably also feeling a tinge of excitement – Could this be a potential relationship? Is the night going to end with you back at someone’s place? Are you going to connect with someone really cool?

Anxiety and excitement often go hand in hand. So, try to focus on excitement as well, when you are feeling anxious.

2. Anxiety shows you things you can improve

Anxiety is very personal. One person can feel extremely anxious in a certain type of situation, while another is perfectly fine. Someone who always does well on tests is probably going to be a bit nervous before taking one, but they know they will do fine. Another person who is always liked in social situations feels nervous about meeting new people, but knows that usually everyone is friendly and there’s no reason to worry.

But if the test-taker isn’t used to socializing and the social dynamo doesn’t study much, OF COURSE they will feel anxiety. They don’t have enough practice in either situation to feel confident. So if you feel lots of anxiety in one area of your life, you can see that as a sign of things you need to work on.

In treating anxiety this way, you can learn to improve as a person.

anxiety-myths

    3. Anxiety and conscientiousness are interconnected

    If you are anxious, you probably think about the future a lot. You might be caught up thinking about what will go wrong, what will happen if you say something to offend someone, and what if people get angry with you…

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    But if you live all your life in the future, you can never enjoy the present, and you are constantly bound to fear. But being conscientious about what you say is good – you want to be well liked and treat people with respect. Also, looking towards the future when you plan is great. This helps you to make sure you don’t run out of money, make a bad decision, or mess up your life!

    This foresight can also be used to plan so you decrease your anxiety and do better in life. In fact, scientists have a term for people like this: healthy neurotics – people who are anxious, but don’t let the anxiety control them. They use the anxiety to plan ahead, do the best they can, and then trust that they have done enough preparation for whatever they are trying to achieve or accomplish.

    The thing is that if you have anxiety, little things may send you into an unnecessary worry cycle. For example, losing one day of sleep might make you tired the next day, but you won’t die and you can probably still work. Missing the gym once might set you back incredibly slightly on your fitness goals, but in the long run, it won’t matter much.

    Having foresight and being conscientious are both incredibly desirable features – just not when they paralyze you. To help yourself, you can take small steps towards things you feel scared about, and you’ll see that even if something goes “wrong”, you will still be OK.

    For example, you could take a day off from the gym on purpose. Weigh yourself at the end of the week. Are you still on track to achieve your goal of gaining muscle or losing fat? You probably will be, and this proof discounts your brain’s attempts to predict that bad things will always happen.

    Our mind assumes we will keep getting what we’ve always gotten in similar situations, due to emotional memory stored in the part of our brain known as the amygdala. In fact, sometimes it will goad us into making decisions or taking actions to deliberately GET the same result. It does not recognize that we can gain wisdom through experience and age.

    Or, if you have never done something before, the brain will project negatively, (making an assumption that in the future something bad will happen), to try to achieve priority number one: keeping you alive.

    But we don’t live in a time of dinosaurs and tigers anymore. Most ‘dangers’ are not actually that dangerous and we can, if our fears come true, recover from a social embarrassment or financial loss.

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    4. Anxious moments are opportunities to practice valuable skills

    Before approaching that attractive person, delivering that important speech, or taking that test, you know how you’re likely to feel. Your palms will be sweating, your heart starts to beat faster, your chest tightens, you have a billion thoughts racing in your head, and maybe you need to use the restroom….

    This is all being triggered by your body recognizing the flight, fight, or freeze response as danger.

    You can get rid of anxiety in two ways: not doing the thing (avoiding the moment or event that causes the anxiety), or pushing through (since afterwards, the anxiety will have come and passed).

    It is in the moments of choosing to push through that you can practice valuable skills that propel you forward in life.

    One of the worst things people suffering from anxiety can think is that because of the anxiety they can’t or shouldn’t do something. For example, they shouldn’t ask for a raise, they shouldn’t stand up for themselves, or they shouldn’t talk to people. Sure, not doing these things might make the anxiety go away, but this also leads to HEAPS of regret, guilt, and keeps you from growing in life.

    So when you get anxious, try supportive self-talk, such as, “After we do this, we can take a break and I’ll buy you lunch”, or, “It will be OK, I know you can do it”, or, “You’ll feel better for doing this, and you will grow”, and “I believe in you”. This might seem airy-fairy, but self-talk can make or break you, and the most successful people replace negative self-talk with positive alternatives. They offer offer unconditional support to themselves as much as they can, even during times when they think they are bad or they’ve screwed up.

    You can also extend this to learning how to meditate and breathe deeply. In anxious moments, our shoulders rise and tighten, our neck cranes forward, and we want to close ourselves off – It’s a defensive posture which happens in preparation for attack. Instead, you want to learn how to slow down your breathing and breathe deeply, relaxing bodily tension. The mind and body are intimately connected, so if one relaxes, so will the other.

    If you are like me, a great deal of your anxiety stems from being a Type-A, high achieving person who is continuously hard on themselves when things don’t get done. We over-achievers need to learn that there’s always another day to do work, important things will get done, (we’ll find a way), and it’s never worth the stress. We are so kind to our best friends, but why not to ourselves?

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    If you need more reasons to be self-compassionate, multiple studies (Breines, et.al., Rohleder, et.al.) have shown that self-compassion has been linked to lower levels of inflammation-induced stress. This kind of stress can lead to health issues like cardiovascular problems, and cancer.

    5. Pushing through anxiety demonstrates great strength and courage. It is not a sign of weakness

    I think this is something we all forget.

    It’s easy to give in to fear and anxiety and not do the things we are scared of. It’s far easier than pushing through and risking personal rejection. It’s always easier not to rock the boat.

    But it can also be incredibly dangerous, leading to a life of frustration, boredom, aggravation, and feeling like you aren’t living how you should be.

    Pushing through your anxiety can be INCREDIBLY difficult, and it can take a lot of mental strength and courage. But it’s worth it to strive for what you want, whether that be in personal relationships, work, travel, or another aspect of your life.

    You should commend yourself every time you do something that scares you. Give yourself lots of positive support. Buy yourself a small gift. Relax for a bit.

    I know from personal experience that dealing with anxiety can be incredibly difficult, and some days you just want to give up. Some days it’s easier to just not push… and that’s OK. But with only one life to live, you need to begin breaking through your barriers to get what you want, even if this is achieved small step by small step.

    Anxiety doesn’t go away. You will just get used to it over time and learn how to deal with it more effectively.

    As you face your fears and learn tools that can help you to make friends with your anxiety, it will eventually lose it’s power to control how you live your life.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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