Understanding anxiety.

Jason Brien.

Anxiety is a typical response to stress. It is a feeling of apprehension, doubt, worry or concern about what is to come. Thoughts triggered by anxiety fall along the lines of “what if”? “What would happen when”? “Is it possible that…”? Anxiety is therefore ‘future focused’. It triggers thoughts and feelings about the expected performance or outcome of FUTURE EVENTS. In essence, anxiety is a form of time travelling and of course travelling into the future is scary because you cannot always accurately predict what will happen. The future is unknown and it is unpredictable. Anxiety is also ‘past biased’. It involves travelling BACK IN TIME in order to evaluate past performances, experiences, perceptions, outcomes, etc, and use those evaluations to ‘predict’ what is likely to occur moving forward. 

To understand the concept of ‘past biased’ better, let us imagine that you have a school presentation coming up where you will have to stand up in front of your class and talk about a certain topic. This is your first presentation. Under these circumstances, it would be natural to experience anxiety. As the presentation day draws nearer and nearer, the extent to which you become increasingly anxious and nervous will depend on a few factors. Since this is your first presentation, you may look at past ‘similar’ events where you were the centre of attention (Birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, singing in church, school play, sports performances, etc). 

Your performance, experiences, feelings, perceptions, outcomes, etc, related to these past ‘similar’ events will likely influence how you think about the upcoming school presentation. If you performed well, had positive experiences, felt good, etc, about these past ‘similar’ events, you may feel less anxious about having to stand up in front of your class and give your presentation. Alternatively, if you performed poorly, had negative feelings or felt bad about the past ‘similar’ events, you may be feeling more anxious and nervous about your upcoming class presentation. I will examine no similar past experiences and their relationship to anxiety in just a moment.

Travelling back in time to predict what is likely to occur in the future can be problematic. For example, if you had positive experiences, outcomes, feelings, etc, about past ‘similar’ events, you may be feeling confident which leads you to become complacent. Since you are not feeling anxious, you don’t prepare for your school presentation properly because you think to yourself “I was fine last time so I will be fine this time too”. Alternatively, if you had negative experiences, outcomes, etc, about past ‘similar’ events, you may feel much more anxious which leads you to procrastinate and have thoughts along the lines of “I failed last time so I will surely fail this time”. Again, this leads you to not work on your school presentation properly.

If you have no past ‘similar’ experiences to draw upon, your mind is completely free to wander into no mans land. Your mind is free to conjure up and think about ALL POTENTIAL POSSIBILITIES regardless of how realistic. This free reign to think whatever you want (you will most likely think of more negatives than positives) increases anxiety. Again, this increased anxiety can lead you to procrastinate and thus you do not work on your school presentation properly. You could of course challenge these negative thoughts. You could of course implement mental boundaries which limits how far down the rabbit hole of uncertainty you go. Taking this approach will surely reduce your anxiety. What are the lessons here though? What is the moral of the story? 

First, we should not be too reliant upon the past to determine the likelihood of our future. We have seen that relying too heavily on the past can be problematic. Relying too heavily on our past can either cause us to become too confident (falsely reduces our anxiety) or it can cause us to lose confidence completely (falsely raises our anxiety). This does not mean that we should disregard our past completely. It is important to be mindful and appreciative of the past. The past can teach us vital lessons which we can learn from in order to improve our chances of succeeding in the future (“I performed poorly last time because I was ill prepared. I should prepare better this time”). The past can also help to keep us humble (“Just because I performed well last time does not guarantee that I will perform well this time”). 

The second lesson is… the choices, thoughts, feelings, etc that we make in the NOW can and will supersede whatever has occurred in the past. That is, even if we have had positive experiences in the past, thinking negative thoughts in the NOW will negate any benefits derived from the past. Similarly, procrastinating in the NOW will likely render previous positive experiences redundant. Likewise, even if we have had bad experiences in the past (or none), we have the ability in the NOW to actively work towards securing positive experiences in the future. Humans are very powerful creatures when we focus on the now. Like the saying goes “The future depends on what you do right now”. 

The final lesson is… you never want to eliminate anxiety completely. Typical anxiety is necessary. It warns us of the potential for danger. It forces us to pause and reflect on the potential consequences of our actions. Typical anxiety aids functioning. It is beneficial. Whereas typical anxiety warns us of the POTENTIAL for danger, atypical anxiety tells us there IS danger”. Whereas typical anxiety forces us to pause and reflect, atypical anxiety forces us to stop and hyperfocus. Whereas typical anxiety causes us to feel nervous and apprehensive, atypical anxiety causes us to feel fear and think of impending doom. 

Typical anxiety is also a realistic response to the situation at hand. Just because the anxiety felt before jumping out of the plane is more intense than the anxiety felt before meeting a new person for example does not mean that the jumping out of the plane anxiety is atypical. Typical anxiety is short and fleeting. Once engaged in the activity, typical anxiety dissipates. Atypical anxiety on the other hand occurs when ALL situations at hand are perceived as extremely dangerous, etc. Atypical anxiety continues to persist even after the event has concluded. Atypical anxiety is ‘ever present’. Its like pinching your skin. Soon after you stop pinching your skin, the pain goes away. This is typical anxiety. If the pain were to persist long after the pinching stopped, this would be the equivalent of atypical anxiety.