.In a word, technology.
When we were young, there were just two chances to see the news: the paper and daily free-to-air news. Fast-forward to today. We have news (with graphic images) constantly pouring out of our smartphones, tablets, TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, you name it.
We’re biologically wired to notice threats, and in the endless bombardment of news stories, ‘if it bleeds it leads’. the most frightening stories get our attention. This makes those frightening events easy to bring to mind, which brings me to a feature of human thought called “availability bias”. In sum, the easier something is to bring to mind, the more frequent we believe it is. So, we’re more afraid of terrorism than physical inactivity, even though the latter is far more likely to kill you.
So if you want to avoid the terrors of modern life, switch off the smartphone, go outside, hold hands with your spouse and play with your kids. It won’t make the news, but why should it? It’s wonderful and happens all the time.
How does anxiety work?
Individual anxiety, like our immune system, keeps us out of trouble daily – but we notice both of these most when they ‘go off’ at things they’re not meant to (e.g. hayfever or panic attacks). Like our immune system, our ‘Anxiety System’ can fire off just in case there’s trouble.
When you exercise vigorously, you might notice your face is hot, rapid breathing and racing heart. Some people notice feeling shaky in the legs and mild queasiness. There’s a good reason why that sounds like anxiety. In times of genuine physical threat, we can either fight or run. Both require massive effort, but we don’t have time to get all limbered up, so our bodies release adrenaline, a chemical ‘WARM UP NOW!’ switch, putting us in that ‘exercising’ state and sharpening our attention to threat so we can act quickly.
Anxiety is pretty handy, eh?
How anxiety can get out of hand
The downside is our ‘anxiety’ (driven by our sympathetic nervous system) can’t tell the difference between real physical threats and imagined or non-physical threats. Imagine I’ve just received a monster tax bill; I might start feeling anxious about telling my partner, after all she might think I’m a goof ball. Now my stomach is in a knot as if I’m in a real fight. Of course, physically preparing for a fight is not especially helpful when I need to plan and have conversations. The take home message is that feeling anxious is not proof that there really is a threat (I might get anxious over a big bill or a speech, but I’m not in immediate danger). Anxiety is, by itself, nothing to be afraid of. It is when we get scared of feeling anxious that the trouble really starts.
I once had a terrible public speaking experience. In fact it was so awful, just thinking about it afterwards set my heart racing. Later, at a colleague’s talk, the sight of the podium and crowd made me sweat, I hyperventilated and my stomach churned. All kinds of disastrous thoughts crowded my mind. But I wasn’t speaking, and I was in no real danger; I just didn’t like the feeling of being anxious. Nevertheless, I took my seat (and a couple of slow breaths) and stayed where I was until the feeling had subsided. A week later I was able to give another lecture of my own with the usual—manageable—nerves.
Now, if I had run from the hall right away, I would have felt better right away. But that’s the problem! The ‘safety behaviour’ rewards my avoidant behaviour; so next time I feel nervous I am likely to retreat sooner, increasing my sense of danger when there really is none. My safety behaviour ends up making me feel less safe. After a while I might stop attending parties, going to meet friends or having difficult conversations; I might even develop an anxiety problem.
So, if you have a favourite way of dodging anxiety (eg alcohol, avoiding people, procrastinating), and this ‘safety behaviour’ is getting in the way of things you’d like to do, it’s time to act. Your local psychologist can help you understand your anxiety, and develop a structured approach to start living a full life again.
If anxiety is pushing you around, I hope this has been a ‘Nudge’ for you to start pushing back.