What Can I Do To Feel Less Anxious?

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Wasteful vs. Productive Anxiety: Not All Anxiety Is Equal

BY DR SARAH HUGHES

Living with anxiety is exhausting.  There’s the constant and endless worry about events outside your control and worst case scenarios that will probably never eventuate.  The worry alone is bad enough, but when the anxiety is really strong, you’re hit with physical symptoms – a racing heart, trouble breathing, sweaty palms, feeling restless and on edge, headaches, tense muscles, nausea…it’s rough.

Living with anxiety is no walk in the park

Living with anxiety is no walk in the park

So it makes perfect sense that where you can, you avoid whatever it is that’s making you anxious.  You delay starting the work presentation you’re dreading, you bump speaking to your boss about a pay rise to next week’s to-do list, you avoid saying no to people when they turn to you (like always) for help, you make excuses to get out of large social gatherings, and you never quite get around to organising your finances.

But while avoidance gives you short-term relief from anxiety, it’s not a long-term solution and it will actually make your anxiety worse.  The longer you avoid something the bigger the issue becomes in your head, and as the list of things you’re avoiding get bigger, so does your anxiety.

It sounds backwards, but what will ultimately lessen your anxiety is doing the opposite of what your anxiety is telling you to do.  When you’re anxious and you want to avoid something, face it head on instead.  Yes this will make you anxious – but feeling anxious isn’t always bad, and not all anxiety is the same.

There are two different types of anxiety – ‘wasteful anxiety’ and ‘productive anxiety’.  The difference?  Wasteful anxiety is the anxiety you’re living with right now – it’s relentless and exhausting, and it serves no real purpose other than to make you feel bad.  Productive anxiety feels just as awful, but it serves a purpose – it will help you to feel less anxious in the future.

How?

Because when you confront an anxiety provoking issue head on one of two things happens: after all your worry, the outcome you were worried about doesn’t even eventuate, or it does, but it’s not nearly as bad as you thought it would be and you get through it. 

You learn through direct experience (which is always more powerful than learning vicariously through other peoples experiences) that your anxiety is misleading. It tricks you into thinking worst case scenario are more likely than they actually are and it makes you under-estimate your ability to cope.  Each time you resist your instinct to avoid you become more and more confident that your anxiety is unreliable and the power it once had over you diminishes.

Still sceptical?  Try it. 

Next time you’re anxious, instead of avoiding the issue, see if you can confront whatever it is that’s making you feel that way.  What have you got to lose?  You’re already anxious – why not try turning your wasteful anxiety into productive anxiety.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.


 

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