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How to Regulate Anxiety

May. 27, 2022 Psychology Today

We might call the times we live in, ‘”The Second Age of Anxiety.” 

Surveys and clinical data indicate the highest levels of anxiety since the post-war publication of W. H. Auden’s legendary poem, when the shadow of nuclear holocaust loomed.

Young people are especially afflicted in this second coming of the Age of Anxiety, faced with uncertain futures and threats permeating their phones and their schools. Men are by no means beyond the grip of noxious worry, but women suffer more disorders, with a wider range of worries about the well-being of others.

Now more than ever we need to understand the function of anxiety and how to reduce its negative effects, while enhancing its positive aspects. Yes, anxiety does have positive effects.

The First Signal

Anxiety is the first signal of the mammalian alarm system. In all animals it signals a possibility of harm, deprivation, or sexual failure. In social animals, it also signals possible abandonment or isolation. In humans, it also signals loss of status or esteem. 

Types of Anxiety

Temperamental: We’re born with an emotional tone that includes a certain propensity to anxiety.

Situational: Test-taking, driving, public speaking, performance, first dates.

Symptomatic of something else: Emotional disorder, stress, depletion of physical resources (tired, hungry, ill).

Beneficial Anxiety

In small doses, anxiety is a vital feeling. Without it, we’re ill-prepared for the important tasks of life. We’d be killed crossing the street.

Actual or anticipated change in the environment, memory, or imagination stimulates anxiety. Anxiety tells us to pay attention—something bad might happen. It shuts out most information to keep us focused on the pending change. Anxiety about accidentally starting a fire gets us to stop thinking about what we’ll have for lunch, and focus on prevention—checking the gas, turning off the iron, servicing the furnace.

Among anxiety’s beneficial signals are those that tell us to improve:

Self-acceptance—when we’re too self-critical

Self-care—when we need to sleep, eat-well, exercise, practice self-compassion

Relationships—when they need attention and repair.

Problem Anxiety

We lose the benefits of anxiety when we construe it as a stop signal, rather than a caution signal. When we interpret anxiety as a red light, rather than a yellow light, we undermine its motivation to improve our health, well-being, safety, and relationships.

In problem anxiety, all signals mean that something bad will happen, and we’ll be unable to cope with it, or the cost of coping will be too great.

Characteristics of Problem Anxiety

Scanning—taking in lots of superficial information, making focus more difficult, increasing error rates

Thought-racing—thoughts that occur rapidly bypass the brain’s reality-testing

Thought-looping—thinking the same things over and over

Self-consciousness—I might be judged

Vigilance— looking for negatives; judging others.

Anxious people tend to be controlling, but not with malicious intent or desire to dominate. They try hard to avoid feeling “out of control” by keeping the environment from stimulating anxiety. Never mind that people hate to feel controlled, which means continual frustration. Attempts to regulate emotions by controlling the environment increase vigilance and worsen anxiety.

Anxiety vs. Fear

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