Anxiety and risk perception

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It doesn’t have to be tight-rope walking, but gentle exposure to activity can reduce anxiety.

Risk is our assessment of the possibility that something we love will be lost.

When we are anxious, our sense of personal risk increases.  Common worries that increase are bodily concerns (diet, illness, appearance), and relationship concerns (rejection, disharmony, intimacy).  So, when anxious, we worry that our weight is wrong, that we are getting ill, that we are getting old or ugly, that we are going to be rejected by significant others, that we are going to fall out with others, and that we are going to lose closeness with others.

The enhanced appreciation of down-side risk is a consequence of anxiety.  For millions of years, animals have survived by suffering periods of time when they were hyper-alert, especially after trauma.  The survival advantage is plain: when bad things are happening, we go on alert to make sure similar things aren’t going to happen again.  This is part of the foundation of post-traumatic stress.

The problem is, that this focus on down-side risk is also a cause of extra anxiety.  We set up a spiral, whereby we think of something that could go wrong, and it makes us anxious… which then prepares us to focus on other things that could go wrong.

How do we stop the spiral?  There are many ways, but here are a few:

  1. Use trusted friends as ‘risk assistants’.  When you feel you may be worrying too much, compare notes with friends whom you know to be sensible.  They won’t always be right, but sensible friends can bring wisdom, humour and perspective to anxious situations.
  2. Meditate on, and practise, compassion.  Compassion takes you out of your selfish world, and therefore softens your self-concern.  This, in turn, softens your fear of loss.
  3. Test life out.  Choose a few simple activities, and try them.  For instance, if you are experiencing fear of rejection, then gently start a few conversations, and see what happens.  You don’t have to launch into all-or-nothing scenarios – just some light exposure.
In this way, you can use friendships, compassionate other-focus, and a bit of activity, to moderate your anxious focus on down-side risk.

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A MEDITATION

What am I worried about?  At times of heightened anxiety, my worries multiply, and my perception of down-side risk can become exaggerated, causing me unhappiness.

At times, the list of concerns grows, and I can start to panic.  An anxious spiral can emerge.

Do I have enough self-awareness to help myself?

Perhaps, by keeping in touch with trusted friends, I can keep a sense of perspective.  Perhaps, by practising compassion, I can reduce my self-concern.  And perhaps, by trying a few simple activities, I can learn that life isn’t really so bad.

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