Fear and anxiety are different sides of the same coin. You experience fear in the face of danger, and anxiety when you anticipate or expect danger, loss or pain. The mechanism is pretty much the same: your primitive brain with its main basis in the amygdala and hypothalamus activate the chain of physiological reactions together with the pituitary gland and adrenal glands creating adrenaline (or epinephrine) and sympathetic nervous system activating noradrenaline (or norepinephrine) that pumps blood into your muscles, releases glucose into the blood stream and speed up your heart rate and breathing. If the danger or perception of danger has not disappeared, cortisol is being released which prolongs the alarmed state in our body.
The short term mechanism of stress reaction is given to us by nature in order to help us escape danger and save our lives in the fight-or-flight response. However, the long term experience of stress and anxiety can have detrimental effects on our health: immune system, cognitive functions by affecting the hippocampus and our memory for example, etc.
The experience of mild fear and excitement when needed can be useful to help us perform physical and cognitive tasks at an optimal level, however elevated levels of fear and the ever present anxiety are not our friends although they might “think” they are doing us a favor. However, although we intellectually know that anxiety is not helping us we can not just stop it. The pharmaceutical industry is making billions of dollars in selling drugs that will potentially alleviate the impact of anxiety, however the cognitive mechanisms that lie behind still remain stubborn.
What can we do if we are habitual worriers? If you are like me, you have probably tried almost everything: self-help books, mediation, positive thinking. professional help, and these can help to a certain extent, of course. So as the natural flow of maturation and becoming more self aware and accepting your self after adolescence can help too. However, we intuitively know that thoughts and emotions are not under our conscious control, at least not directly. Sometimes, the harder you try to stop certain feelings or thoughts it gets worse.
Nevertheless, there are certain tricks and sideways that can indirectly change the direction of thinking and the flow of our emotions.
1. Create space between you and your thoughts and emotions by observing them – listen to your inner dialogue, watch the scenes that your mind is creating and feel all the physiological reaction in your body: tightness in your chest, the knot in your stomach, the tension in your forehead, etc. This can be difficult if the emotion is too strong and overwhelming or if you have been caught up in the obsessive thinking for far too long. However, if you stop for a second to take a long breath in, you just might have a chance to defocus your attention from the unwanted content and create a silent moment of peace in your mind.
2. Work on the tasks that you feel confident doing and slowly build up your self confidence and the sense of self reliance which will further help you in working on more demanding tasks. You will feel the energy flow and the excitement of work itself, and you will not be focused on the end result but on the process of creation and this will make your path more enjoyable and effective as well.
3. Be aware of your critical self-talk and be more gentle to your self. See your self as any other human being. You would not be so harsh to your friends when they make a mistake or if they do something “embarrassing”. So why would you be a tyrant to yourself? It does not serve you and you can only become your own torturer.
4. Remember the bigger picture. For example, if you are having the test anxiety, remember the purpose of it, why you started this class, how it will enrich your life in the future, remember your initial motivation. Remember that the main point of studying or working on something is not the exam result or an external reward, but the your personal growth and enrichment.
5. Create the sense of purpose in all of your plans and goals and this will create less pressure on the immediate results and more space and self forgiving for potential mistakes. Purpose gives us direction and makes sure that we keep on going in our efforts in order to achieve it. Purpose is broader than creating specific goals and it is important part of knowing our selves. By creating purpose we reaffirm our identity and feel stronger in our own shoes which further on silences the negative thinking patterns and alleviates anxiety.
There are many others ways of stepping out of anxiety of course, but don’t forget to take yourself more lightly and smile and laugh whenever you can. Your amygdala will lighten up for a second, at least.