Anxiety is our ability to predict danger and warn us about it. It gives us the opportunity to look into the future, anticipate problems, and take corrective action now in order to prevent bad outcomes.
For example, consider being worried about looking stupid at a party, or being afraid of failing a test, or being rejected in a job interview. All of these things are examples of our mind looking into the future, analyzing the situation, and warning us about danger so we can do something about it.
Sometimes people say that they have anxiety over the past. But if we tunnel down into that even then, anxiety is the anticipation of future consequences of a past action.
For example, one might say “I’m anxious about what I said at the party last night.” While that looks like a past-facing statement, it’s actually the underlying worry of what people WILL think about what this person said at the part earlier. Its the anticipation of what will happen as a result that causes anxiety.
Moreover, the smarter you are, the worse your anxiety will be. The more that your mind can compute potential futures, the more potential problems your mind will tell you to worry about.
What happens in the brain during the anxious situations situation?
There is a part of the brain, called the Amygdala, which is responsible for "fight or flight" reaction. When people are in a state of fear or trying to survive, this part activates and controls people's basic functions to prepare for survival. So during anxious situations, your fear triggers the Amygdala to activate and the body begins to prepare for a survival situation. Your blood pressure increase, heart rate increases, pupil dilates, and blood goes to muscles. In addition, to compensate for the increased muscle blood flow, your cerebral cortices, which is responsible for sophisticated thought, shuts off and diverts blood from your complex functions. This also leads to black-and-white thinking, which crucial for life-and-death situations.
Near the Amygdala, the Hippocampus, which is the learning center of the brain, begins to take that anxious experience, and learns that the anxious situations is a warning sign for danger. The brain learns quickly from these bad experience because it is evolutionarily necessary to help us survive and prevent future pain. This leads to situations where getting food poisoning once at your favorite restaurant can ruin your enjoyment, Or in terms of anxious situations, you can learn when people look at you, then you are in danger. This begins to affecting your daily life like entering into the front door of a party or answering questions
Eventually with repeated exposure, the hippocampus will interpret the anxious feelings as an issue itself, and create beliefs and behaviors that prevent you from being in anxious situations. For example, the anxiety response from people looking at you turns to a belief that being seen is bad and being invisible is good. This wiring becomes deeply rooted in the brains circuitry and as a result is extremely difficult to change.
Some would say that this reaction due to social anxiety is a mental illness, and because the brain is malfunctioning in social situations. However, it is not malfunctioning and not mental illness because the brain working properly based off of its survival mechanism and is learning that attention is bad.
You can try to push away the fear and the survival instincts but it will not work because the response circuitry is too strongly built, and the amygdala is inhibiting the cerebral cortex. Therefore, all the reasoning and the arguing that you do to try to convince yourself not to get anxious and scared from anxious situations does nothing to help the brain. In addition, because you fail each time you wrestle with your anxiety, you also begin to doubt and get frustrated with yourself.
This struggle can sometimes make forming online social connections feel easy because there is no need for eye contact. However, because you begin to lack social interaction, online interactions become addicting.
Anxiety can cause a lot of suffering. However, since it is a part of our mind, we can tame it. We can learn to control it and activate it when we need it, instead of allowing it to control us.
Anxiety usually manifests in the form of future-facing thoughts. These thoughts typically have two components:
Therefore, an anxious thought is usually something like:
"Future Facing Thought + Ego/Self + Context of anxiety"
"What if I can't get a girlfriend/boyfriend?"
"Will I be good enough to pass the test?"
Anxiety can also manifest as physical sensations such as tightness in your chest, nausea, butterflies in your stomach, headache, sweaty palms, and/or shortness of breath.
Uncertainty is really frightening, and so we try to remove the uncertainty. We try to alleviate our anxiety by trying to control something in the future.
For example, if you crack a joke at someone’s expense, you might worry about offending them. Your mind will tell you to apologize just in case, even though they haven’t given you any reason to believe that they were offended. You might try to remove the uncertainty of that person being offended by trying to apologize just in case.
The other way we try to remove uncertainty is by not triggering it at all. If we avoid certain situations entirely, then we can control for any potential negative outcomes that could happen.
For example, if you don’t even show up at a party, then there is no chance for you to misspeak or say something stupid. You control the worry completely by avoiding the situation entirely. People might study hard for a test if they are worried about failing it.
The problem is that oftentimes, our solutions for anxiety, and our desire to exert control is very restrictive and causes us to suffer. If you don’t go to the party, no one can think that you’re dumb because you’re not there, but then you end up never going to parties. You end up narrowing the scope of your life and restricting the things that you can do.
The trouble is that a lot of the time, anxiety has positive benefits. It can get you to study really hard for a test, even if you end up skipping all social events and staying up really late at night.
The other problem is that if we give in to our anxiety, we can become so concerned that we overcompensate and make the problem worse.
For example, if we’re worried that people don’t like us, and we apologize more profusely, which can be off-putting and annoying to other people, which makes people not like us. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s our solution to our anxiety that creates more problems.
The other problem with anxiety is that if we give in to our anxiety too much, then we become easy for people to take advantage of.
For example, if you are too anxious, you might end up behaving a doormat: you might apologize too much and never stand up for yourself. Sometimes you will run across people who will never want to admit that they did anything wrong, and they will take advantage of you. It becomes a very convenient pairing for them.
Anxiety is also often rooted in some kind of insecurity.
For example, consider hanging out with your dog. Are your anxious? Why not? Its because you have confidence that your dog likes you as a person. Also consider why you do or do not feel anxious playing a competitive video game. You might be confident about your ability to engage in the game, even though you might win or lose. You have faith in yourself to face that uncertainty.
Anxious thoughts breed more anxious thoughts, which creates the vicious cycle of growing anxiety called rumination.
Moreover, anxiety is circular. This increase in thoughts fuels more thoughts, and over time this leaves the mind exhausted.
In contrast, a non-anxious thought process goes something like this:
Notice that anxiety does not subside until it is resolved in some action. However, the anxiety does not fully leave the mind, and instead, when the source of anxiety comes back, your anxiety comes back. In contrast, problem-solving results in fewer thoughts, and has an end to the thoughts. This obsession or thought loop is caused by something called Raga, which is the sanskrit word for attachment or attraction. Whether it is the attachment to not embarrassing yourself during your date, doing well on your test, or having your best friend be available whenever you need them, the mere thought of losing that thing you care the most for brings you anxiety.
You can even try to fight that anxiety or resolve it as mentioned before, but it will lead to failure, and having it grow into something that controls your life. There needs to be a way to not give into the anxiety, let it starve and have it shrink some how. And to deal with these thought loops, you need to detach or create separation between your source of anxiety. This is also called Vairagya in sanskrit. Although it sounds cold-hearted to create distance from the things you care about, it is the only way to bring about detachment, and shrink the anxiety. Detachment begins by noticing the feelings and acknowledge that come up from your anxiety. And once you notice your feelings, you begin to separate yourself from those feelings. Detachment does not mean that you stop caring and you ignore your feelings. Rather detachment is acknowledging those feelings and understanding that they are separate from yourself.
As you build up distance from your anxiety, the more you are able to stave off giving into the anxiety. In addition, the mind is designed to return to equilibrium, so all you have to do is wait out your anxiety. This is true when it comes to other feelings like joy or pain, because they will not last forever.
The first step to managing and coping with your anxiety is understanding the neuroscience of anxiety, and acknowledging that there is nothing wrong with you. Anxiety brings up pain, shame, and suffering you have with yourself, and these feelings make it difficult for you to move forward. So understand that anxiety is not a sign of illness, weakness, or worthlessness. Anxiety is a primitive, yet powerful survival mechanism design to control behavior. So there is no shame for not being able to "control" your anxiety because your anxiety is deeply wired into you.
The next step to coping is practice noticing your instincts and reactions when you are anxious. As mentioned before, fighting with your anxiety will only lead to failure and only exacerbates the anxiety and increases your shame. So there is no practice, no chant, no meditation, no control, and no fighting you need to do. Practice noticing your anxiety. Even if you fail at noticing your anxiety, this is all practice and there is not shame. Finally, you might begin to notice that the anxiety begins to subside.
The action of noticing activates the frontal lobes and cerebral cortex, so when you noticing your anxiety, you are strengthening your frontal lobes, which allow you to plan an set and action. With practice you will be able to keep your frontal lobes activated despite having blood being diverted to by the Amygdala. Then the hippocampus will learn that being seen does nothing, and there is no need to be in survival mode.
Some other ways to strengthen the frontal lobes and frontal cortex is practice noticing with other things in your life.
Good Ways to Cope
Bad Ways to Cope (Don't do these!)
The other interesting solution is that once you actually end up in situations where you have to engage, such as a party, if you can actually focus on the experience of engaging with people, the anxiety melts away. It’s the anticipation of engaging that keeps you stuck.
Therefore, the other solution to anxiety is to develop confidence. Consider how you try to remove the uncertainty to control your anxiety. However, that makes the problem worse because you never face uncertainty and therefore, never develop the confidence to face it. That means that every time life throws uncertainty at you, your anxiety gets worse.
So, if you can develop confidence to face uncertainty. Resolve your personal insecurity, so you don’t need to control your environment to alleviate anxiety. If you don’t need to control your life, your life becomes less restrictive, and you become more free.
An important thing to keep in mind is to not argue with your anxious thoughts. If you argue with these thoughts, they will grow and create tension in your mind. Therefore, simply observing and letting the anxious thoughts pass and without trying to fight them is a great way to turn off the mind and prevent the anxious thoughts from multiplying.