The Nature Of Anxiety

Along with sadness and anger, anxiety is one of the three main emotions that can cause a lot of problems when it gets out of hand. Many people who have trouble in social situations struggle with it to one degree or another. It's a facet of shyness, and of course it's the main ingredient in social anxiety.

It's easy to describe anxiety quickly. It causes physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms. Physically someone may get a rapid heartbeat, become shaky, start sweating, feel pukey, or develop a dry mouth. Mentally they may feel fearful, worried, and distracted. Behaviorally the emotion makes people want to escape from whatever it is that's making them feel that way. They may also stumble over their words. That's the summary, but anyone who's lived with anxiety knows there's a lot more nuance to it than that:

Socially, the worst effect of anxiety is that it makes you avoid things you shouldn't be avoiding

More so than with anger and sadness, experiencing anxiety is quite unpleasant. At maximum levels it's downright terrifying. When the anxiety is brought on by specific situations, rather than general life stresses, it compels you to avoid those things. Its logic is quite simple. It tells you, "When you're in certain situations I'll appear, and you'll feel terrible. If you don't get into those situations I won't rear my head, and you'll feel fine."

The problem is this response often runs totally counter to your long-term interests. If someone feels anxious in response to an obscure or rare scenario it won't affect them too much, but often they feel nervous about common things they want to do. They want to be able to mingle at parties, or share their opinions with their friends, or invite someone to hang out. Avoidance can make people miss out on large, important parts of life because they're trying to prevent themselves from ever feeling uncomfortable. They can end up rearranging their lives into lonely, sterile ruts, all so they don't have to encounter their fears.

What the anxious person needs to do is face the anxiety head on and learn to handle it. Following the Siren's call of avoidance is a little like being a drug addict. If someone is hooked on crack they need to get off it, even if the withdrawal and recovery won't be easy. However, their addiction tells them, "When you haven't smoked crack in too long you start to feel bad, so just keep yourself high all the time, and then you won't have that problem!"

Avoidance can lead to a vicious cycle which strengthens the anxiety

Here's how it works: Something makes a person anxious. They feel the urge to avoid it, either by escaping a situation they're already in, or by deciding not to go through with an action they were considering. By fleeing they've cemented the idea in their mind that the circumstances they avoided were scary indeed. They're likely to feel more anxious next time, and even likelier to want to get out of there. Not only that, but the feeling of relief they experience upon giving into their urge to avoid also reinforces that behavior.

People can partially avoid a situation through safety behaviors

A safety behavior is something a person does that allows them to be in an anxiety-provoking situation, but which shelters them from the full brunt of whatever it is they're afraid of. Some examples:

Anxiety caused by something a person wants to do can lead to them shifting between Approach and Avoidance behaviors

If someone is anxious about a situation they find neutral or unpleasant they'll often avoid it without a second thought. If they feel nervous about something they want to do they can get caught in an Approach/Avoidance conflict. What happens is that there are facets of the situation that encourage the person to 'approach' it. There are also aspects that steer them towards avoidance. For example, someone may feel conflicted about asking people to hang out. They want more friends, but fear possible rejection and the awkwardness of having to ask.

When the person is far away from the feared/desired situation the Avoidance factors aren't that salient. Therefore they're motivated to move forward. The closer they get, the more prominent the Avoidance factors become. Once they get too close the Avoidance factors overpower the Approach ones, and the person bails out on their plan. However, once they've escaped, they're at a safe distance and the Approach factors urge them to move forward again. Repeat.

Here's an example of what it looks like: A man wants to start conversations with his college classmates, but feels anxious about not having anything to say. When he's at home alone and feeling lonely he feels very motivated to try to chat to those classmates. Since the Avoidance factors are so distant, he may even feel confident and psyched up, and be convinced he'll be able to talk to someone the next time he tries. The day he has class he's still eager, but feeling a little uneasy. As he walks to class his heart starts racing a bit, but he still thinks he can force himself to go through with it. Once he's actually standing around with his fellow students outside the lecture hall he feels very nervous and inhibited, and decides not to talk to anyone... When he's walking home from class, and the immediate danger is gone, he starts thinking that maybe he'll be able to do it next week.

The cycle can play out over shorter time frames as well. Like at a party a man may go through several rounds of Approach/Avoid as he tries to work up the nerve to introduce himself to a group of friends. When he's just about to walk over to them he can't do it, but when he's ten feet away, regrouping in the kitchen, he feels like he may be able to do it if he just gives himself another minute.

Anxiety can make you think you truly don't want to do things that really just make you nervous

It does this in two ways. Sometimes a person will be anxious about something deep down, but they'll genuinely believe they're not interested in it. Like they may want to sign up for a club at school, but are a little intimidated by some of the other members. They'll tell themselves they didn't really want to join anyway, and actually believe it.

Anxiety is also an amazing excuse and rationalization generator. Someone may realize they're nervous about doing something, but they're able to come up with an endless number of reasons why they're too busy to do it today, or how tomorrow isn't right either. For example, someone may get invited to party full of people they don't know, and decide that's the night they really, really should clean their apartment. Or maybe they'll intend to go but decide at the last second that it's too cold to head out.

The excuses really are endless too. If someone dismisses five of them, seven more will appear in their place. Trying to combat the excuses themselves doesn't really help. They need to directly tackle the anxiety that's spawning them.

Anxiety exaggerates the danger of things

A lot of the time when we're scared of something our worries are out of proportion to how dangerous that thing really is. We may have to do a mini-presentation at a staff meeting, and the anxiety could very well tell us we're going to freak out, vomit all over ourselves, and ruin our careers.

Sometimes a person will think they're scared of one thing when they're actually afraid of something else entirely

Sometimes the thing someone is truly scared of gets pushed into their subconscious and appears in a different form. It's like their mind still wants something tangible for them to fixate on, but doesn't find the first thing acceptable. For example, someone who's concerned about the future of their relationship, but isn't fully aware they feel that way, may suddenly start to worry about how safe their neighborhood is.

When you have a lot of anxiety it can bleed over into other areas

A woman could have a high level of anxiety because she just moved to a new city, she's not doing well in school, and her sister is sick. She has lots of things she's legitimately nervous about. However once someone's baseline level of anxiety goes up, it can latch on to other, unrelated, things and make them seem more threatening as well. For example, the woman may suddenly start worrying about getting into a horrible accident every time she drives. Even if she's never had a scary driving experience, her anxiety may have somewhat randomly glommed onto that as something else for her to be worried about.

Anxiety can compel you to do other things in order to relieve it

Besides leading to avoidance, another thing anxiety can do is compel people to perform some sort of behavior to make their jitters go away. These actions never provide any lasting relief and it's not long before the anxiety is asking them to do the same behavior again. An example would be someone who tends to be insecure in all their relationships. Their anxiety may tell them, "Ask your partner if they really care about you." They do that, their partner tells them everything is okay, and they feel better for a while. However, soon enough their worries reappear and they feel an urge to seek reassurance again.

A core reservoir of anxiety can manifest itself in all kinds of ways

There are a variety of anxiety disorders. Ten people could all be carrying around the same amount of base anxiety, but have it come out in different ways. Again, the mind seems to prefer to have something solid to focus on. It's like the anxiety feels more contained and controllable when it's attached to a specific worry, along with a behavior that can be performed to temporarily reduce it. Someone may...:

Anxiety is sometimes brought on by unrelated physical sensations

When we're experiencing an emotion we have certain thoughts, and we also feel particular sensations in our body. What's interesting is that if we can bring on the sensations associated with a particular mood for other reasons, our mind will often actually make us feel that way. If you force yourself to smile you can't help but feel a little happier. If you clench your jaw and fists and start breathing through your nose, you'll start to feel angry.

In the case of anxiety someone may do something to make themselves shaky or cause their stomach to feel a little upset. Their mind takes the next step and causes a bunch of worries to pop into their head. For example, someone may be sitting at work in the morning when they start to get nervous about their weekend plans out of the blue. If they were to go back and break down what led up to this, they would see that they had a bit too much coffee when they arrived at the office, and it's starting to kick in. Before they were even conscious of the physical sensations the caffeine brought on, their brain decided it was a sign that they should feel anxious.