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Countering your anxiety
by Rob May 1st 2012, 09:36 PM

Countering your anxiety
By Robin (PSY)

When faced with an anxiety-provoking situation, two things happen: our body expresses the anxiety, and our mind becomes consumed by anxiety-related thoughts. Most of us have had to speak in public at least once in our lives. This situation can be frightening for most people – in fact, studies have shown that some people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying! So what happens when someone is about to speak in public? Their bodies will begin to express their anxiety through sweating, rapid breathing, an increased heart rate, dizziness, nausea, and so on. They will also be thinking about the situation they are about to face, and focusing on all the things that could go wrong (“What if I forget my lines?”, “What if I trip on stage?”, “What will people think of my performance?,” “What if I fail?”).

Pointing out both the physical and mental effects of anxiety may not seem important at first, but many people who experience panic attacks for the first time don’t recognize they are having a panic attack. They don’t make the connection between what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking – generally, they only focus on what they’re feeling. When their heart begins to race and their chest feels tight, they don’t think “I’m having a panic attack”, they think “I’m having a heart attack!” They may go to the emergency room, only to be told that nothing’s wrong with them. They’re confused, because they know they experienced something out of the ordinary, but there isn’t a medical explanation for it. The answer, of course, is that the physical symptoms are connected to the mind.

This article will briefly cover both the physical and mental aspects of countering your anxiety. To effectively manage anxiety-provoking situations, attention must be paid to both parts of the equation.

Physical

You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response, which is something we all experience when we’re scared. When a wild animal sees a predator, they have two choices: they can either stand their ground and fight off the predator, or they can run away from the predator. There’s also a third option, which is to “freeze.” Some animals will use camouflage to blend in with their surroundings, thus avoiding detection. When we experience anxiety we usually “flee” the situation or “freeze”, unable to take action or make a decision. During that time, adrenaline shoots through our bodies, preparing us for “flight.” Adrenaline can increase our heart rate and cause us to breathe more rapidly, which can lead to feelings of dizziness and nausea. When we become aware of these sensations, we believe that something bad is about to happen (because that’s what our body is telling us), which causes us to think about all the bad things that could happen, which solidifies the feelings of anxiety.

When you begin to feel the physical effects of anxiety-provoking situations, try to focus on your racing heart and rapid breathing. Concentrate on slowly drawing in your breath, then releasing it, and doing this over and over again until your heart and breathing returns to normal. If you have the opportunity to do so, close your eyes and stretch your muscles to release the tension in your body. If you can force the body to relax, it will stop the “fight or flight” response, which will stop the production of adrenaline and allow you to feel safe again.

Mental

As stated previously, the mind is affected by what the body is doing. If the body is telling you something bad is about to happen, then the mind will begin to wonder what those bad things could be. It can be very difficult to stop those negative thoughts once they begin to race through your head, even if you manage to relax your body. Some common thoughts include:
  • I have to do this perfectly – otherwise, everyone will think I’m stupid and a failure.
  • If someone doesn’t like me, then it’s because there’s something wrong with me.
  • I need to be 100% certain before I do this – otherwise, it could end badly.
  • If I take a break or relax, I’ll be seen as lazy or careless.
  • No one can see how worried I am, because they’ll think I’m weak.
When these sorts of thoughts begin to race through your head, it’s essential that you 1) recognize them as negative thoughts, 2) accept that these thoughts are NOT true, and 3) focus on disproving those thoughts at all costs. If you’re not sure how to disprove negative thoughts, take a look at the examples below:
  • I have to do this perfectly – otherwise, everyone will think I’m stupid and a failure.
    • No one is perfect, so why should I expect myself to be perfect?
    • People can make small mistakes and still come out on top at the end.
    • Everyone fails at some point, but that doesn’t make them failures.
  • If someone doesn’t like me, then it’s because there’s something wrong with me.
    • Maybe that person is just having a bad day.
    • I don’t have to take this so personally – this is their problem, not mine.
    • What evidence is there to suggest that this person doesn't like me? Maybe I’m assuming too much.
  • I need to be 100% certain before I do this – otherwise, it could end badly.
    • No one can be 100% certain about everything in life.
    • Taking small risks isn’t always a bad thing – and the reward is worth it.
    • Even if things don’t go my way, I’ll be okay in the end.
  • If I take a break or relax, I’ll be seen as lazy or careless.
    • No one is superhuman – we all need to relax sometimes.
    • If I take a break, then I will feel refreshed and be able to focus better on this task.
    • I’ve worked so hard on this, and everyone can see that. No one will think I'm careless.
  • No one can see how worried I am, because they’ll think I’m weak.
    • We all worry about things from time to time – that’s part of being “human”.
    • Being “human” doesn’t make me weak.
    • I’m probably not the only one who’s worried about something right now.
When thinking of ways to disprove these sorts of thoughts, think about what you might say to a friend who was in your situation. Would you agree with them if they said they had to be perfect, or else they would be a failure? Of course not! So why would you hold yourself to a higher standard? The answer is that you shouldn’t have to. Your expectations for yourself need to be just as realistic as your expectations for friends – otherwise, you may find yourself feeling anxious on a daily basis!
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