What is anxiety? What does it mean to be anxious? And perhaps an even more important question, what is the purpose of your anxiety?
For those of us with anxious minds, the appropriateness of our anxiety is often illusory. We often don’t question our emotional states when they arise because they feel like they are “us.”
This is to say that we perceive our sense of self as being inseparable with our emotions. This is a consequential mistake to make seeing as how most of our anxiety serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever other than to further increase our own suffering.
As you surely know, we experience anxiety when we perceive there to be a threat of some sort. The problem here is that for those of us suffering from anxiety disorders, our perceptions of reality are often very much distorted. With this in mind, we need to come to grips with the fact that our anxiety tells us nothing factual or objective about reality.
Our perception of reality is based on a plethora of complicated factors, many of which are completely out of our control, such as our genetics, our brain chemistry, and our childhood experiences.
For example, someone suffering from coulrophobia cannot know why they are dreadfully fearful of clowns. They only know that they are. The fear they perceive is an illusion, much like the fears most of us have when talking to strangers, going on a date, having a job interview, or walking into a crowd. We anticipate the worst will happen, even though it usually never does.
We get lost in thought and convince ourselves that our fears are worth worrying about. It also doesn’t help that our bodies are responding to our thoughts by way of increasing our heart rate, our body temperature, and our rate of breathing, among other things.
It’s unlikely that we would ever question whether or not our mind and our body were both misleading us. We think what we think, and we feel what we feel, therefore it must be veridical, right? Paradoxically, the antithesis is often the case. Thoughts arise in and out of consciousness without a scintilla of reverberation as to their origins.
Thoughts arise (seemingly out of nowhere), we direct our attention to them for an unspecified amount of time, and then they simply disappear. It is important to realize that the content of our worry thoughts tells us nothing factual about reality. Instead, they tell us how we perceive reality.
Assuredly, I’m not saying that thoughts themselves are useless or that they can never help us unveil reality from illusion as one needs only to think about the logical absolutes to realize this.
Instead, what I am saying is that we should be more skeptical when we experience anxiety, especially for those of us with anxiety disorders, as there is a very high chance that the anxiety we’re experiencing is completely irrational.
To understand this better, juxtapose the following two scenarios:
In the first scenario, we have a man in the woods being attacked by a pack of wolves. His anxiety is obviously justified as it can help to save his life by stimulating his sympathetic nervous system to prepare him to fight or flee.
In the second scenario, a different man with panic disorder may experience the same amount of anxiety (if not more) when asked an arbitrary question by a cashier at the grocery store. Fear thoughts of being judged, ridiculed, or simply sounding stupid will echo throughout his mind with no sign of relief.
The differences between both of these people’s psychology and physiology is negligible. They both perceive there to be a serious threat among them, and both their minds and their bodies respond to the beliefs they have about those fears accordingly. However, the obvious problem here is a confusion as to what is really worth worrying about.
The degree of anxiety experienced by the person being attacked by wolves is clearly justified as their life is in actual danger. Conversely, the anxiety experienced by the person at the grocery store when asked a question by the cashier is completely irrational and useless.
My point here is not to say that rational anxiety is justified, while irrational anxiety is unjustified. Rather, I’m professing that the tools with which anxious people use to detect real threats from non-threats is extremely faulty.
Therefore, it is imperative that those of us with high anxiety do not believe every arbitrary thought we think or feeling we experience as they are not objective reflections of reality, but rather they are oftentimes reflections of our own neuroticism.
The absolute best way to remain a highly anxious person for the rest of your life is to dwell on every anxious thought that pops into your mind, as well as to believe that you are in real danger every single time you feel anxious.
To indulge in these irrational beliefs and to not challenge them is to accept that you’ll never reach your full potential in life as anxiety will always be there to remind you of your shortcomings and your insecurities.
To stop further psychological suffering, we must realize that anxiety itself tells us nothing factual about reality, but rather it tells us what we perceive reality to be.