Anxiety is inner conflict, tension or disturbance. It’s based on a threat response; when life seems to be upsetting our safety or equilibrium, we get anxious. Physical symptoms include increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, tiredness, and difficulty eating or sleeping. Mental symptoms include obsessive recurring thoughts, and avoidant (or sometimes aggressive) behaviour.
Anxiety is essentially an alarm response – there is something inside us trying to tell us something. ‘Something is wrong,’ anxiety says, ‘and I’m going to make you feel uneasy until you correct the situation.’
Here are three things that commonly cause anxiety. Along with each cause, I have made a suggestion as to a way to respond.
#1 – TASK CONFLICT
We don’t really get anxious when focusing on a single task. But we do get anxious if that focus is complicated by something else demanding our attention. For instance, if a parent is on the phone on a business call, and their child pulls at their sleeve for attention, this is likely to trigger some aggression. The cause is multiple demands on a limited attention system.
SUGGESTION: If possible, when an interruption happens, operate a 3-step process: first, pause your existing focus; secondly, attend to the interruption; thirdly, return to your existing focus. Thus the parent would pause the business call, attend to the child, and then return to the business call. Try to operate a single-focus policy.
#2 – SCHEMA CONFLICT
We operate according to authentic inner ways (behaviour sets), some evolved, and some developed in our lifetime. We get anxious when we are forced to do something which feels inconsistent with these inner ways, or schemas. For instance, a concert piano player will develop a set of authentic ways (postures, movements, required environments, frequently used language). These help with flow and effectiveness. When threatened or inhibited, the pianist will become anxious and frustrated. Most people are the same in this respect.
SUGGESTION: Try to understand what your own schemas are. Many people are unaware of their schemas, and therefore find it hard to understand their own anxious reactions. (They don’t know what inner rules have been broken – they just know they’re upset.) Counselling and psychotherapy is an excellent way to understand one’s own inner ways, narratives and schemas. Understanding takes the confusion out of life, and reduces frustration.
#3 SOCIAL CONFLICT
Humans have a lot of socially sensitive ‘modules’ in mind and body. We are, if you like, programmed to try to stay peacefully aligned with others. Anxiety therefore results when that peaceful alignment is threatened.
SUGGESTION: Try to reduce your exposure to volatile people and situations. At the same time, try to increase your exposure to steady people and situations. This will provide your mind and body with a strong sense of consistency, reducing anxiety.
THE INTERACTION OF THE THREE
Tasks, schemas and relationships do not exist in isolation. Our real lives involve constant management of the interaction between the three.
For example, our job may require us to perform a single-focus task. Much of the time single-minded focus on that task protects us from anxiety. However, this only works if the task feels authentic to us (i.e. fits with our ‘inner ways’ or schemas). It also only works if the task does not bring us into conflict with our peers. Thus, a busy professional may experience acute anxiety if forced, day on day, to perform actions which don’t feel authentic, and/or spoil peaceful relationships with their fellow humans.
One of the best ways to manage the interaction of the three, is to become constantly and mindfully aware of whether or not we feel peaceful flow. if we don’t feel peaceful flow, we stop and ask ourselves ‘what is wrong?’ At first, we may be very bad at doing this, and have no idea what to correct. But eventually, we start to act like a kind parent to ourselves, and learn the adjustments that eliminate anxiety and restore our flow.
WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT
In terms of our character and context, we are all different. When you manage the three factors above, bear in mind that your answer to reconciling anxieties won’t be the same as others’. Find what makes you happy.
WE ARE ALL THE SAME
Despite our differences, we are all the same in our preference for single task focus, authentic behaviour, and a peaceful relationship circle. Therefore, probably, our plan of action to reduce anxiety will involve:
- Focusing on one thing at a time
- Finding a life consistent with our authentic ways
- Developing stable relationships with peaceful people
This requires attentional discipline, inner mindfulness, and wise friendship choices. It’s like riding a bicycle – we only really notice our key skills when they are compromised, when we wobble. Being mindful at those wobbly times, and finding flow through them, is the key.