Beat Anxiety and Worry; As a human being, chances are that you have a lot of first-hand experience of worry and anxiety, and you might even identify as someone with especially high anxiety or stress. But how deeply do you understand these processes? Most of us use the words “anxiety” and “worry” interchangeably, but in fact they refer to two separate processes: the cognitive phenomenon of “worry” and the physical experience of “anxiety.” As anyone familiar with worry and anxiety knows, these two experiences often go hand-in-hand and build on each other to form a sort of “perfect storm.” But by distinguishing between worry and anxiety, you can double your chances of heading off a “storm” with two separate approaches: challenging your worries on the cognitive level, and soothing your anxiety on the physical level. Below we explore both worries and anxiety in depth, and suggest a few strategies to beat anxiety and worry when you are facing another possible “storm.”

Worries

Worries are those thoughts and images that most often contain that “what if?” phrase: “What if I left the stove on this morning?” “What if he never calls me back?” “What if I miss my ride to the airport?” Before you know it, you’re sucked into the worry vortex. One worry leads to another, and your mind is quickly building a very scary world full of disaster. “The house is going to burn down!” your mind figures, or “I will never find love.” “I’ll miss my flight and have to spend another $700 for a new one!”

It’s important to be able to interrupt and consider our worry thoughts before they begin snowballing in this way. You’ll notice that worries are future-oriented, focused on potential problems that have not yet come to pass but which we desperately hope to avoid. A little bit of worry is useful in this sense--if I am worried about passing a test, for example, I will feel motivated to study and then I am more likely to pass. But too much worry can have us feeling helpless and paralyzed in no time--if I am worried about a volcano erupting on the other side of the world, there is not very much I can do about it, nor can I really be sure if it will happen. 

Worrying is only useful insofar as it helps us identify real problems within our control. We want to catch our worries before they spin out into the most dire situation our brains can imagine. We need to evaluate them to see if they are alerting us to a problem we truly need to face (helpful worry), or if they are just a product of our all-too-imaginative mind (unhelpful worry). Once we have determined the nature of our worries, we can then focus our efforts on the problems that really do need solving and practice letting go of the wild scenarios that are unlikely to ever come to pass. It is similarly important to put small but bothersome worries into perspective--yes, it probably would be embarrassing to mispronounce that new co-worker’s name, but will it really be the end of the world?

Some useful questions to ask when evaluating your worries are, “Is this truly the most likely outcome, or is this my fear talking?” “If this worry does come true, how much will it matter in a week? A month?” “Will I care about this in 50 years?” Sometimes it can also help to simply ask yourself, “is it helpful to me to worry about this right now?” This question can remind us that although our brains love to solve problems, worrying is often unproductive. You might also try to get some perspective by imagining yourself coaching a friend through a similar situation--after all, we are often much harder on ourselves than we are on those we love. Bear in mind that even with these strategies it’s likely your worry thoughts will pop back up from time to time--remind yourself that just because a thought enters your head, you do not need to buy into it. If it’s a worry that you’ve identified as unhelpful, simply release it by visualizing it as a bubble to be popped.

Anxiety

We can challenge our worries using the above methods, but unfortunately our bodies respond just as seriously to our imagined catastrophes as they do to real-world threats. In fact, this physical response to worrying is part of what makes it so unpleasant! It’s bad enough to be preoccupied with a worry thought, but if you add in difficulty sleeping, a racing heart, a tight chest and an upset stomach, it’s no wonder that people want to stop worrying so much. These symptoms (and a few others) characterize anxiety, or the physical response to danger both real and perceived. Our bodies have evolved to be alert to threats and to defend ourselves with the same sympathetic nervous system response (also known as the fight-or-flight response). If we imagine our early ancestors facing a saber-tooth tiger, we can see that this fight-or-flight response is critical to survival - that flood of adrenaline is what enables us to stay alert to the prowl of a predator, and for our bodies to take action to stay safe without our conscious minds having to make a decision. Unfortunately, our bodies react the same way to worry thoughts as they do to predators in the wild. The increased heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing and “tunnel vision” are less helpful when you’re worried about a test or navigating a crowded stadium. 

Just as it is important to tune into our worries as early as we can, it’s helpful to tune into our physical anxiety as soon as we notice it. There are three reasons that this helps you beat anxiety and worry: first, it is much easier to resolve low-level physical anxiety before it rises to the level of panic. Secondly, anxiety can help us notice a worry that our mind is pushing away. We want the opportunity to evaluate this worry (as we learned above) and to either solve the problem or let it go, and anxiety can help us identify it. Thirdly, remember that the fight-or-flight response developed for a reason. We don’t want to react to every minor stress as if it’s a saber-tooth tiger, but we want to be able to respond appropriately to possible threats in our environment. If a situation is causing us great physical distress, we should take heed and verify whether there is a true risk to our safety. 

Because worries and anxiety are linked, to beat anxiety and worry take stock of the thought you are having when experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety. For example, “I notice that my stomach is churning, and the thought that keeps entering my mind is of missing my flight.” It’s good to stay curious about these experiences! For example, you may have never realized that you have a mild fear of public speaking, but noticed that your breathing got shallow and your hands trembled as soon as you walked out on stage. This discovery might prompt you to practice a speech with a friend to get comfortable, or to simply give yourself an extra couple minutes in front of the podium before speaking to catch your breath. 

Sometimes it is just too much to ask of ourselves to be curious about our worries, especially if reaching a panicked state, and in those moments our best course of action is to do our best to slow down our physical processes. We can’t directly change our heartbeat or digestive system, but we can slow our breathing, which will begin to signal our body that it’s OK to relax and ease up on that fight-or-flight response. When our minds are racing with worries, we need a concrete plan to slow our breathing. You might try “square breathing,” which imagines your breath as having four equally long parts in the shape of a square: 1) inhale 2) hold 3) exhale 4) hold again. You can count each part for the same 4 beats to help make sure they are equal. This form of breathing helps us keep oxygen from the inhale in our lungs a little longer, which helps our body relax. 

If counting seems too daunting, another strategy is to inhale with a big wide mouthful, and then pucker your lips on the exhale. This will automatically slow your exhale and keep the air in your lungs a little longer. You might want to focus your attention on your lips throughout this exercise, which has the added benefit of mindfulness. 

For more strategies to beat anxiety and worry tailored to your specific concerns and goals, contact the Center for Growth and schedule with a therapist.