For way too many people, worry and anxiety are the normal, default emotional state. The phone rings and you assume it’s someone calling with bad news. There’s a knock at the door and your first thought is that it’s the police, coming to inform you that your son has been in an accident. The school sends a note home with your child and, before you’ve even opened it, you’re convinced it has to do with a behavior problem.
Why do our minds always and immediately go to the worst possible negative outcome? Why doesn’t my mind, instead, respond, “I bet it’s Publisher’s Clearing House with my million-dollar check!” Or, “They probably want him to represent the school at the United Nations!” Why do we imagine all the things that could go wrong but never give equal time to consider, list and weigh everything that could go right? Why is our default position always to instantly imagine all the horrible outcomes that are likely to befall us?
Turns out that there are two reasons for this.
The first is that our brains are naturally wired with something called a ‘negativity bias.’ This means that, through millions of years of evolution, our brains have grown to be more sensitive to bad news than good. Dr. John Cacioppo was a Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. In studies that he conducted when he was at Ohio State University, he showed that our brains react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive. Our attitudes are more significantly influenced by bad news than by good.
It makes sense, too. When we were wandering around in the same neighborhood as hungry saber tooth tigers, we were well served by a brain with systems that made us notice, and respond to danger. Today, the tigers are long gone but that biology is still with us. Now, instead of noticing a charging mastodon, our negativity bias is alerting us to the insulting Facebook post or the (extremely remote) possibility of a bad medical diagnosis. As Hara Estroff Marano wrote in Psychology Today, “Nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains.”
The second reason is that, from the earliest age, we’ve been trained and conditioned to worry.
And I do mean earliest! Numerous scientific studies indicate that anxiety in the mother during pregnancy can have significant mental and behavioral effects on the child as it grows up. The results of one study showed that high levels of maternal anxiety have a “significant relation with mental disorders, emotional problems, lack of concentration and hyperactivity and impaired cognitive development of children.” The same study also concluded that anxiety during pregnancy can lead to “irritability and restlessness, individual differences in reaction to stressful life events and more fear in dealing with life events.” Another study concluded that both physiological and emotional/mental effects of prenatal anxiety continue into infancy and childhood. Mental and emotional effects can include “greater negative emotionality and in infants, lower mental development scores and internalizing problems. Anxiety disorders occur during childhood and elevated cortisol and internalizing behaviors occur during adolescence.”
None of this means, however, that you can’t lessen your own anxiety levels. In fact, simply knowing the origins of your own unease begins to make it far easier to walk away from.
Perhaps your mother was completely Zen-like during her pregnancy and you emerged as balanced and unblemished as can be. Immediately, and rightly, your parents began to look after and protect you.
Think about the advice that all caring parents give to their children: “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t forget to wash your hands – you don’t want to get sick.” “Be careful on the way home from school.” “Your hand will turn green and fall off if you keep doing that!”
To be sure, the advice about not talking to strangers is excellent – when you’re eight years old and walking home from school alone. But when you’re 26 or 56 and still cringing when someone you don’t know walks up and rings your doorbell, things are out of control. While it’s good that our parents taught us to be cautious, they should also have taught us when it’s okay to back off on the yellow alerts. All the admonitions taught us to be basically untrusting and wary of the world around us.
It’s also a very good idea to wash your hands regularly. But when you carry a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere you go, wiping down every surface you plan to touch, it’s reached a level of anxiety that borders on paranoia. Our biology provides us with an immune system that’s designed to filter out the germs without any help from Purell. In fact, your immune system needs to encounter and learn about new bacteria all the time if it’s to remain robust and effective. If we’re constantly killing off all the germs on the shopping cart handle before our bodies have a chance to encounter and learn how to deal with them, it’ll lose its ability to ward off disease. Then, like the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs when they encountered the first Europeans, our bodies won’t stand a chance to fend for themselves when some new virus sneaks past the Handi Wipe.
There is no doubt that there are some things out there of which we need to be cautious. But let’s recognize that the vast majority of people, events and circumstances we encounter every day aren’t just benign, they’re downright beneficial, delightful and good.
I spend a lot of time in airports and I frequently see people who are borderline apoplectic with anger, anxiety and worry that they’ll miss their connection or be otherwise inconvenienced. They are beside themselves with worry that they’ll miss their flight.
People miss flights all the time. And when they do, the meeting gets postponed, the party is missed or the vacation begins one day later. Again, so what?
You will survive
People actually lose their jobs all the time, too. They also get sick all the time, and they suffer the breakup of relationships, too. If you’re alive and breathing, bad things are, occasionally, going to happen to you. But you are going to survive.
The point is, we spend so much time worrying about horrible things happening to us. And on the odd occasion when they do, it’s never so bad as we believe it’s going to be. Yes, it’s inconvenient, annoying, sometimes even painful. But the feelings of tension, anxiety, anger and frustration that we experience by letting ourselves be rattled by the anticipation of the event are far more disturbing, damaging and dangerous than the unwelcome outcomes that we endure.
Worrying about it is worse than the problem
The list of negative health effects that chronic worry and anxiety can bring on should be enough to scare you out of being scared: Skin conditions, irritability, high blood pressure, ulcers, restlessness, panic attacks, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, trembling, feeling weak or tired, trouble concentrating, gastrointestinal problems, depression, headaches, irritability, heart palpitations, muscle aches and loss of libido.
Or you could just be late for your meeting. The choice is yours.
The same comparison is true regardless of the particular worry that might be your personal favorite. We all believe that our worry is different, the negative outcomes more catastrophic, the consequences more far-reaching. But they’re not.
Worries or lessons?
While the negative outcomes are never as bad as we believe they’re going to be, the lessons that we can learn and the growth we can experience from those outcomes are always infinitely more valuable than you can imagine. But that’s if, and only if we choose to pay attention to the lessons.
Think back to some situations in which the very thing you were worried about came true. While it’s obvious that you survived, how bad was it? Be honest with your assessment here – Did things turn out to be as terrible as you had imagined them being during the runup to the catastrophe? Or were they not quite as awful as you anticipated they were going to be?
Perhaps, more importantly, did you grow from the experience? Did you learn any lessons that have helped you to avoid or mitigate similar situations in the future? What were your takeaways? Did it just leave you even more worried about a repeat performance? Or did experiencing the consequence result in your begin better prepared and better equipped in the future?
Bad things will still happen
There is no doubt that at some point in your future, something is going to happen that you’d prefer didn’t. Are you going to spend the time between now and that day working on your heart palpitations? Or are you going to rationally anticipate that life will throw the occasional curve ball, be ready with the lessons you’ve been learning all your life and, in the meantime, enjoy the sunshine?
“Do you remember the things you were worrying about a year ago? How did they work out? Didn’t you waste a lot of fruitless energy on account of most of them? Didn’t most of them turn out all right after all?
The world, society, our friends and relations all love it when we worry.
Why? Because they worry too, worrying is miserable and misery loves company! But there’s no requirement that you play their game.
Once you’ve decided to opt out of worry, you’ll want to keep an eye out for these four ways that the world loves to try to keep you worried.
Walk through an airport, run on a treadmill at the gym or sit down for a drink at the bar and there it is – non-stop news. News stations make their money from the number of eyeballs and eardrums that are tuned in and the more sensational, the more terrifying they can make the report, the more fearful we become and the more we tune in. But you don’t have to! Try going without the news for an entire week and see how much lighter, freer, easier you feel!
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the whole social media tidal wave has got us plugged in 24-hours a day. We become addicted to the emotional roller-coaster and our blood pressure goes up and down right along. If you must be connected (and there’s no rule that says you must) set a specific (and short!) time each day to check your phone. Then put it down and go back to that great book, your gardening or sit for your daily 10-minute meditation.
The ‘Worry Club’
You know them. They’re the ones who phone you up regularly, and it’s always bad news. “Did you hear about the earthquake?!!” “Looks like it’s going to rain again today.” “I bet the traffic is going to be bad this morning.” Misery does love company, but it doesn’t have to be you. Drop out of the worry club. Avoid the people who drag you down and seek out the ones who lift you up and make you feel alive. And in those times when you can’t avoid the ‘worry-monger,’ keep the chat short and follow it immediately with a little treat for yourself.
What’s the opposite of a ‘feel-good’ movie? It’s one that makes you feel miserable, scared, depressed, anxious or otherwise yucky. Same goes for music lyrics. If you’re choosing to unsubscribe from anxiety, you might want to make some adjustments to your entertainment diet. While those ‘feel-good’ movies might have a reputation for being light-weight and occasionally a bit cheesy, the endorphins, dopamine and serotonin pulsing through your veins will more than make up for it.
If you have an allergy, the strategy is simple: Avoid those things you’re allergic to. If you don’t want to feel worried or anxious it’s easy to begin avoiding those things that bring on those feelings. What worry trigger are you going to start avoiding today?
Have you ever petted a rescue dog? I can’t resist petting a dog that I meet when I’m out for a walk, but I can always tell the ones who were rescue dogs. Just about every one that I’ve ever petted has reacted in a predictable way. As gentle and loving as your intentions might be, when you raise your hand to pet them, they flinch. The tail goes between the legs, the head goes down and they cringe, waiting for the slap they know is coming.
Makes me want to cry.
Of course, the reason they react this way is that, from the youngest age, they’ve been ignored, scolded, slapped down, maybe even beaten. It’s trained them to expect to be hit so whenever they see a raised hand, they brace for what they know is coming.
We’re trained to be afraid
We’ve all been trained, to one degree or another, to expect to be hit. Perhaps not physically, but the mental and emotional blows we’ve been dealt have been just as painful and just as effective in training us to flinch and stay down on the ground.
Maybe it was your mother who, once too often said, “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?” Or your father who, upon seeing the 98% you got on the test, asked what happened to the other two points. Or a lover, who liked to play passive-aggressive control games. Or the gym coach who smirked at your athletic attempts.
It could have been the math teacher who rolled her eyes when you raised your hand with a question, the music teacher who suggested that you just lip sync and let the rest of the choir carry the tune. Or maybe you watched as your parents struggled to make ends meet in the monthly budget.
Doesn’t matter where or by whom we were trained, we’ve all picked up a whole lot of useless baggage and a big set of fears and self-doubts along the way. And they always give us that instinctive and painful emotional flinch when we evaluate how we look, how smart we are, how physically adept we are or how much we’re worthy of being loved.
I like to call it, ‘rescue dog syndrome.’ If you’ve been beaten down often enough, you start volunteering to stay down.
The best way to avoid that pain? If you simply take a pass on trying to look nice, taking up running, signing up for a course or going out on a new date, nobody can judge or criticize you. And every time we give in to that unfortunate training and accept the judgment of others, we shrink. Our possibilities shrink, our self-esteem shrinks, our willingness to try new things shrinks. And we end up as small, shrunken people who flinch at the first hint of a raised hand, whether that hand is metaphorical or real.
In the vast majority of cases, our fears and self-doubts have no basis in objective reality. They’re simply what we’ve come to believe about ourselves. We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re not good with money. We’ve trained ourselves to believe that we’re unattractive. We’ve come to accept that we will always be passed over for promotions.
These fears we harbor, though, are rarely based on some external, uncontrollable reality. They’re merely our own thoughts; beliefs we’ve grown to accept. Have a thought in your head often enough and it eventually becomes a belief. Your beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies and end up as your reality.
Do your thoughts serve you?
If these fears, self-doubts and limiting beliefs have been learned, and if you decide you’d be better off without them, then it might be a good idea to set about un-learning them. Step one is to become aware. Catch yourself in the act of doubting yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts, don’t just accept them as they waltz through your head. Then ask, does this thought serve me? Is my life better as a result of this belief I’m holding? Or would I be stronger, more capable, and willing to try more if I could get rid of this belief?
By paying attention to the thoughts that habitually swirl around in our heads, we can begin to get a handle on the limiting beliefs we’ve convinced ourselves are true. These are the culprits that we can then root out on our way to a contented and joyful life.
When that fearful, flinching dog unlearns her old thinking habits and understands that a raised hand does NOT mean she’s about to be beaten, her life becomes a whole lot more joyful.
When we’re born we come pre-programmed with two, and only two fears: The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. After that, anything that makes you fearful, anxious or in doubt about yourself is learned or conditioned. And with every new bogeyman, we dream less, we hesitate more and the sphere of our infinite potential shrinks.
Some fears are downright useful – hot stoves, hungry tigers, high-voltage wires. These are the “Oh crap! That bus is about to hit me!” kind of scared and they’re just smart survival instincts.
Fear is constricting
But most are constraining, restricting, limiting. In the face of them we believe less, try less and become less. These are the non-stop, low-grade, chronic, “How-am-I-going-to-pay-the-cable-bill-this-month?,” “Why-hasn’t-my-friend-liked-my-Instagram-post-yet?,” “I-think-I’m-supposed-to-worry-more-about-climate-change,” “I’m-sure-these-symptoms-mean-I-have-cancer!” kind of anxiety. It’s the kind of scared that, late at night, when you can’t sleep, the cascade of hideous outcomes ends with you pushing a shopping cart along the sidewalk or rotting in a rat-infested prison.
Then, just for fun, let’s add in those self-doubts that are purely the result of our conditioned beliefs. The ones that set limits for ourselves before we’ve even tried. “I’ll never be good at math.” “You have to be lucky or criminal to be rich.” “I can’t get up there and sing karaoke!”
It sucks to be scared all the time.
So let’s stop.
We make ourselves anxious
Turns out that, with the exception of the hot stove/oncoming bus kind of anxieties, none of the rest are based on any external reality. They’re our over-active imaginations cranking up the fear factor. They’re our tendency to immediately go for the worst-case scenario that has you landing in that hell-hole prison.
In other words, our fears, our anxieties, our self-doubts are self-imposed.
And they come with an ‘off’ switch.
We’ve immobilized ourselves with our addiction to CNN, Twitter and the gut-wrenching competition to win that last spot in the best pre-K so your three-year-old will get into Yale. None of which are mandatory.
Remember “Chicken Little?” That dim-witted hen who, when an acorn fell on her head, concluded that the sky was falling and proceeded to instill mass panic among the rest of the farmyard animals? It’s a cute story and it’s easy to see the folly of jumping to conclusions based on fake news.
Remember “The Emperor’s New Clothes?” The dim-witted emperor and townspeople who believed the con men who told them that only the smart people can see the cloth? It’s a cautionary tale for those who can’t or won’t think for themselves.
When we allow our imaginations, our psyches and our inner monologues to be hijacked by fear-mongering headlines and Twitter posts, our wits are also dimmed. And our infinite supply of human potential is stolen.
Such a colossal waste!
But what about Chicken Little? Like her, I spent way too much of my life convinced that the sky was, indeed, falling. That’s how we all feel when we’re so trapped in our very real, personal panic. It’s impossible to think calmly and rationally. And as imaginary as these demons are, the power they wield in our psyches makes them impassable roadblocks just the same.
Are you fed up with anxiety?
Sooner or later, every one of us gets fed up with worrying what others think, hiding under the bed and surrendering command of our lives.
In spite of the power those demons wield, it’s entirely possible to remove those roadblocks. Since it’s all self-imposed, we can learn to unplug from the fear. We can untangle the net of fear, anxiety and self-doubt that keeps us from exploring and our limitless human potential. We can live up to the promises we’ve made to ourselves.
Anyone can do it. But only if you’re willing to hit that ‘off’ switch. Only if you want to leave the drama behind and get to know the valuable, competent, courageous, remarkable human being that you are.
Overcoming the fear, transcending the anxiety, conquering the self-doubt. That’s what i-fearless is all about.
Let’s make some distinction among the various threats that seem hell-bent on our destruction. Without getting into fine-grained science it will serve us to define fear as a response to a very real and present danger. Hot stoves, hungry tigers, high-voltage wires, all fall into the “Oh crap! That bus is about to hit me!” kind of scared and they’re just smart and downright useful survival instincts.
In these situations our responses are always instantaneous and action-oriented. We’re all familiar with the “fight-or-flight” response to a threat. Both of these options involve decisive and immediate action. If the house in on fire, we grab the kids and get out. If the ship is sinking, we make for the lifeboats. If the bully is heading our way in the playground, we run the other way or stand up and punch him in the nose.
‘Fear,’ ‘anxiety’ and ‘worry’ surface when we figure something bad is going to happen and they can be thought of as different intensities of the same emotion. In other words, they’re all the same thing, just with the dial turned up or down.
Any time your mind perceives that an event is approaching that could end badly for you, one intensity or another of this set of emotions is triggered. In every case, though, the ‘event’ is something you’re imagining that might or might not happen at some future time.
None of these events has actually happened. They’re all some distance off in the future. The closer in time the fear-inducing event is, the more we’ll respond in that fight-or-flight, immediate and decisive action mode. In fact, when it comes to the fear spectrum, there’s something perversely satisfying about a real emergency: it arises, we respond, and it’s over. The muscles relax, the adrenaline dissipates and we clean up the mess.
A vague, or far-off event, though, can trigger that low-grade, chronic anxiety that drains our energy because, while we find ourselves fretting in anticipation of the negative outcome, there seems to be little or nothing we can do about it right now.
You’ve likely heard the acronym that defines FEAR as Fantasized Experiences Appearing Real. Absolutely anything that evokes fear, anxiety or worry is going to, or is imagined as going to take place in the future. If it’s already happened, you’re not afraid anymore. You might be angry, injured, broke or even dead but you aren’t anxious or afraid anymore.
The point of the acronym, however, is that a future event isn’t actually real. Right now it exists solely in your imagination. And a great many of the future events over which we agonize never actually come to pass. As the 16th-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne, observed, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”
We writhe in mental agony over the diagnosis we’re convinced we will get, the lover we’re sure is having an affair, the exam we’re terrified we’ll fail or the nut-job with a gun we’re sure is walking through the mall, yet these events virtually never materialize.
Even though these ‘events’ exist purely in our imagined future, we’ve taught ourselves to fear them as if they were both very real and very immediate. Perhaps it’s time we unlearned that lesson.