Fighting and Flighting

A cursory look at social media and the news gives the impression that a lot of people in the United States today are experiencing something that everyone experiences from time to time: anxiety.  Don’t worry, this post isn’t about the election, but it is about that feeling.

What is Anxiety

Anxiety is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s helpful to have a good working definition.  Basically, it is a feeling of unease, nervousness, or worry about something with an uncertain outcome.  Hence, people are anxious about the election because they don’t like the candidates and are uncertain about the potential outcomes, and are very worried about that uncertainty.

What Does Anxiety Do?

Anxiety has a reputation for being something that needs to be avoided, but to do so limits the spectrum of human emotion.  The fact is, anxiety is a very useful tool of the brain and body that is often misunderstood.  When we really dig down into the function of anxiety, it is our brain trying to keep us safe.  It activates the Fight or Flight response, which directs the flow of attention and energy in order to maximize our survivability.  Key word there being survivability.

An Ancient Solution

I often explain anxiety to my clients like this: Imagine it’s 10000 years ago, and you are out hunting.  You’re tracking your prey when suddenly you hear something walking behind you.  Your heart rate goes up, blood moves from your core to your limbs, and your brain starts going a mile a minute coming up with possibilities of what the thing behind you might be, as well as what you can do about it.  That is the function of anxiety.

Alas, we do not live in a world where this is something we need to worry about.  Hunting accidents have more to do with irresponsible use of firearms than being mauled by a tiger, but the brain structure is there.  It is designed to keep us safe from threats, both real and perceived; and it doesn’t work so well in a world where we are, in general, safe.

What to Do With Anxiety

Anxiety is a tricky thing, because ultimately, the best thing to do about it is lean into it.  We feel anxious because our brains tell us that there is something to be concerned about.  So let yourself feel it, and acknowledge what it is that it is telling you to be wary of.  Then, perform some grounding activities to get you back into the real world where you can do something about the issue.

A Note on Anxiety Disorders

In general, this article focuses on normal anxiety; and while understanding the source and function, as well as some coping skills for anxiety is useful even with anxiety disorders, don’t hesitate to talk to a doctor about your anxiety if it is overwhelming and causing you distress or impairment.  If I can make one thing very clear, it is that there is nothing wrong with needing some help managing our stuff.  So get some help.

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