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Is anxiety harmful or helpful? You decide

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As a continuation on the topic of coping strategies in uncertain times, this article will speak to things that can cause anxiety or worry, and how this reaction can be perceived as and become harmful or beneficial.

Worry is to feel or cause to feel anxious or troubled about actual or potential problems (Online Dictionary). When there is not enough information regarding what the future holds, it seems the most natural thing to do is to be anxious. That is, even with our best intentions, humans are wired to have unpleasant feelings when there is uncertainty about the future; about the next step to take to make life feel normal again. Biology is responsible for that.

Thoughts that involve anything that has to do with not being sure about something trigger physiological and physical responses in the body that cannot be controlled. However, as soon as these bodily responses are experienced, the individual has the mental ability to control the reactions; humans were created by God to think rationally about ways to protect ourselves and to survive.

The benefits and harmfulness of anxiety and worry

When an individual experiences anxiety, the fight-or-flight stress responses are triggered and hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline are released into the system. This usually immediately increases the breathing and pulse rate, and this is to allow more oxygen to get to the brain. This is preparing the individual to appropriately respond in a situation that is perceived as intense. However, anxiety or worry, especially when prolonged, can lead to physiological and physical reactions such as irritability, headaches, heart palpitations, chest pain, lightheadedness, paranoia, hopelessness, upset stomach, increase in blood pressure, extreme fatigue, and muscle aches and pain, and even depression, among others.

On the other hand, when we experience worry or anxiety about the future, it gives us the opportunity to plan coping scenarios. That is, we make plans on how to regain some amount of control over the current situation; it makes us more aware of our surroundings and activates the fight or flight response in case you need to defend or protect yourself physically.

Effects of anxious thoughts on different people

Uncertainty induces anxiety in everyone, but everyone will not be affected on the same level. When the levels of anxiety are high, tolerance for coping with uncertainty is usually low, and when people are less anxious, acceptance for the unknown is usually high; that is, they are better able to manage their reactions in uncertain times.

I know for a fact that people who have real issues with anxiety or excessive worrying will view social gatherings as overwhelming because they don’t know what will happen and are usually thinking that there is the possibility of something stressful happening. They worry about who will be there, whether they will dress or behave appropriately, whether or not it will be fun, how and when is the best time to leave if the gathering becomes too overwhelming.

However, people who are generally less worrisome do not spend a lot of time thinking about these ‘small’ issues. If the thoughts mentioned above come to someone who is not generally anxious, he or she would probably shrug it off mentally, and say “Who cares? When I get there I will find out.” Confidence is generally higher than anxiety, so the person who is not worrisome probably would be excited to see what others are wearing, without even caring much about what he or she is wearing, as long as it is accepted by the individual. There is usually a thrilling expectation for the many pleasant possibilities, rather than hesitation from thoughts of potential unpleasantness.

It would take the unknowns of a social gathering to trigger high anxiety levels for someone who is habitually anxious, but it would take larger or more high-stake uncertainty to trigger the anxiety alarms for the individual in the latter scenario, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one.

As we can see, this current crisis that we are in is powerful enough to make even persons who don’t usually worry become anxious. And the anxiety levels for generally worrisome people may increase to exceptionally high levels. So what we all may be experiencing now can be considered as normal.

Mark you, I am not saying that one way of reacting to uncertainty is correct and the other is not. What I am saying is that the reactions from different people are simply different. However, psychologists have found that there are warning signs that indicate that a certain reaction – especially when it becomes the norm – is not beneficial to the individual. What I mean is that although anxiety is our normal way of coping when there is not enough information or control, when it becomes very high over things that we are not able to control or give account for, it becomes harmful and unhelpful.

No one cannot stop things like time, unpleasant news, natural disasters, or pandemics, but it helps when you turn our focus on what can be controlled in these situations, and that is yourself. Here are two things you can do to make worry work for you:

  1. Sort through your thoughts or worries to see which ones are unproductive and tune them out. That is, if you decide that nothing good will come from playing that thought of worst-case-scenarios in your head over and over, find ways to drown it out with more productive thoughts, such as what are the best methods to protect and care for yourself and family. Similar to accepting what you cannot control, tuning out certain thoughts is not easy to do, but recognizing unproductive worry is a necessary first step.
  2. Make new routines and habits to develop a sense of control. Orders for social distancing and uncertainty about when all this will end has disrupted most persons’ normal routine. What you need to do is consciously create new routines such as exercise, entertainment times, dedicating time to developing a new skill, and anything else you can think of. We usually get a sense of control and predictability when habits become automatic.

Now that you are reminded or are just discovering that worry is not really a ‘bad’ thing and that it not only causes negative actions and reactions; but can actually help us to make decisions for survival and protection, I leave these questions with you: “What will you allow your worry to do for you today?” “How can you make worry be beneficial to you rather than harmful?”



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