A useful framework to understand anxiety

“Don’t they know, it is wrong. It makes me anxious”
The Housemartins, 1986

Anxiety exists above all as anticipation, our hopes and fears for events that we might see on the horizon but that haven’t arrived yet. Most of us have been living with greater uncertainty in 2020 than we have in the past; understanding our emotional response to this can be very useful.

Some key points that I’ll explore further:

  • Everyone experiences anxiety – this is “Normal”, and most people have an exaggerated sense that they are an exception when they aren’t
  • Anxiety encompasses stress and worry, but also ambition and happiness; indeed “a life that was anxiety-free would also be bereft of wonder, enthusiasm and excitement.”
  • Worrying about worrying is one of the most prevalent forms of non-useful anxiety in work. It distracts us from productive activity but many people see virtue in it because they equate it with caring

Anxiety has an everyday, colloquial meaning as well as a technical, psychological one, and as is often the case when this happens there are some fairly big differences. The latter definition is broader and sees anxiety as a core building block of the human experience that encompasses both good / pleasurable / helpful aspects as well as bad / unpleasant / unhelpful aspects. The everyday meaning covers only the second category of negative emotions. Wonder, enthusiasm and excitement are desirable feelings but most people don’t see them as the flip side of “bad” anxiety, but rather as a separate category of experience.

The diving board

When I was young I liked to go to the swimming pool at the local leisure centre, not so much for the swimming but for the diving boards (there were several stacked up in ascending height). I wasn’t the only one, there was always a queue to get on and what I experienced every time I visited standing in that queue for the first time, was almost overwhelming dread and fear.

This was the anxiety of anticipation. What I was anticipating was something both mortal and publicly-shaming (a powerful combination for an eight year-old) and as I shuffled further up the queue the sense got worse. To the point where, by the time I got to the diving board I was half-inclined to suffer the humiliation of climbing back down the ladder and walking away. But instead I would run and bounce off into potential oblivion and as I did so the horror transformed into delight as I went through the air into the water and experienced the sense of freedom and excitement that motivated me to go there in the first place.

After that first one I was totally fine, the bubble of worry had been burst by my recent experience and I was running up the ladder all day long.

These are the two sides of anxiety and it is part of the peculiar nature of our existence that the one reinforces the other, what Søren Kierkegaard referred to as “the dizziness of freedom”.

The psychologist Roland May is the founder of modern analysis of anxiety, and drew an important distinction between Normal anxiety and Neurotic anxiety. He saw anxiety as the natural, healthy and useful response we have to new or changed circumstances. Until we have incorporated this change into our outlook there is tension. In the example above this tension was resolved through experience (jumping off the diving board) leading to a new balanced equilibrium between expectation and reality. (Until the next visit to the swimming pool when the anxious anticipation had again to be tempered by experience).

Normal anxiety is anxiety that is proportional to a perceived threat. Neurotic anxiety is disproportional or exaggerated. If you’re stuck in traffic and likely to be late for a meeting you may experience some Normal anxiety as you anticipate the potential consequences. If the meeting is very important and with someone you know values timeliness the tension could be quite high – say it was a pitch for new business, you might not get the job.

At what point does that tension become Neurotic? When it’s disproportionate, when the consequences we anticipate are perhaps catastrophic. Often our immediate judgement of the level of threat is different to the one we make at the time. This can lead to a reaction that compounds or increases the actual level of threat.

I had a client who was late for a meeting in her office and was so worried that she drove at dangerously high speed to get there. When she did arrive, she was so flustered that the meeting was interrupted for ten minutes and for the next half hour she couldn’t take in anything that was said as she was so pre-occupied by worrying about what people thought about the nature of her arrival.

After the event she realised that her response had been exaggerated; these were colleagues and being late due to traffic is at worst slightly irritating for them. But her distracted arrival was potentially more damaging for her reputation. And what was most alarming is that SHE HAD ALMOST KILLED HERSELF DRIVING in the rush to get there. When it comes to actual threat, three figure speeds in a slightly out of control car really could lead to extinction.

Context and immediacy can have an important bearing in our anxiety going from Normal and proportionate to Neurotic and disproportionate. But the distinction between the two states can be both circumstantial and borne of experience.

Going back to the diving board, let’s say there was another little boy who was terrified to get on and refused point blank. Don’t worry you’ll be fine, it’s just a little bit of exaggerated anxiety we might say. But what if the year before he’d seen his brother jump off a diving board and badly injure himself somehow? His sense of Normal anxiety would tempered by this experience and different because of it.

The distinction between Normal and Neurotic anxiety is useful, but also complex due to context. It is more easily used for understanding your own emotions and behaviours than to understand others.

Everyone experiences anxiety and this is quite natural and healthy. I often find in coaching that people are surprised and reassured to learn that is the case. The important thing is to become familiar with it and learn to live with it, to reflect on your experiences in a useful way so that you can be borne along by the “wonder, enthusiasm and excitement” inherent in the phenomenon more so than worn down by the stress and worry that it also implies.

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

Rollo May famously said that “anxiety seeks to become fear”. Like a bike with a wonky front wheel many of us veer into the dark side of anxiety, especially in the short term. There can be risks borne of compounding actions i.e. almost killing ourselves in the journey to get there in time. Often we can see this quite clearly on reflection, and a common theme of coaching is to learn from these experiences and seek to develop new habits to moderate our behaviours in ways that are useful.

One exception I’ve found to this sometimes is the reflection that actions that with hindsight can be seen as unhelpful are still seen as worthwhile as they were borne from a commendable sense of care. ‘We worry because we care’ can lead to the conclusion that if we don’t worry then we don’t care.

4 o’clock in the morning

A lot of people do this. Awake at 4 in the morning and you find yourself thinking obsessively about a problem at work and all sorts of new and radical perspectives are bursting inside your mind. You get up, maybe write them down, maybe draft a few emails. At least the writing gets it out of your system enough to calm down a bit and go back to bed and manage to fall asleep just before the alarm goes off.

Remembering what you did earlier and the ideas seem less useful, until you think OH NO I DIDN’T ACTUALLY SEND THAT EMAIL?! Fortunately, you didn’t and can get on with the day with no damage done other that you’re now tired from lack of sleep and unable to concentrate properly or get much done.

But it’s OK because being up half the night shows how much you care.

The opposite of anxiety is apathy. Having an anxious response does show that you care but if that anxiety manifests itself as stress and worry only it’s unlikely to contribute to solving any problems. It’s more likely to help if you can avoid the distraction of worry and focus your efforts productively.

In These Uncertain Times we should expect to experience higher levels of anxiety and if these are a response to a higher level of threat, this is (technically), Normal. There are no pat solutions, but understanding your emotional self through journaling, reflection and yes coaching help. Cognitively understanding our emotional selves so that we know a little of what is going on under the hood helps too.

Above all the point is not to eliminate your anxiety but to learn to live with it, and also to be aware that much of our satisfaction in life comes from our (anxious) desire to change things for the better.

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