Monday, August 4, 2014

How to Overcome Anxiety

It can’t hurt.

The University of Cincinnati now offers students a brief guide to dealing with anxiety. Much of the advice is worthwhile. Some of it is subject to question. But clearly, the guide represents the latest non-pharmaceutical thinking about anxiety.

If one ask why no one has done this before, one might imagine that college students in prior eras knew how to cope with their anxiety without having to read a pamphlet or even to take pills.

Jesse Singal reports on the Cincinnati guide in New York Magazine. Like me, he agrees with some of what it offered and disagrees with other parts.

To begin with the good, I agree with Singal that slowing down and taking a few deep breaths is one of the best ways to control anxiety. A good yoga class might teach you how best to destress by learning how to breathe and stretch.

Singal suggests that there is a feedback loop between anxiety and its bodily manifestation in breathing. If you are threatened you might instinctively play dead… that is, breathe much more slowly. Or else, you might begin to hyperventilate, to breathe very quickly.

In either case, the cure is not in your mental processing, but in your ability to control your breathing. It’s far easier than trying to control your thoughts. Moreover, controlling your breathing will allow you to take a step back from your problems, the better to put them into perspective. If you cannot put them in perspective you will never be able to solve them.

For my part, I would add that you will have an easier time dealing with problems if you see them as someone else’s. That is what it means to take a step back and to look at a situation objectively.

The Cincinnati guide also recommends that you put your problems in a larger perspective. It helps you to see them as more manageable. In the great scheme of things the fact that you don’t have a date for prom is not of overwhelming importance.

I am less happy about the guide’s advice to contact a friend and unload on him. It represents an unfortunate tendency to believe that there is a transcendent virtue in expressing your feelings.

And yet, when you are feeling anxious and overwhelmed you would do better not to show weakness to your friends. If you do you will risk developing a reputation for being anxious. In turn, this will cause people to lose respect for you. They will see you as incompetent and this, in turn, will make you depressed. It is better to follow the old advice: never let them see you sweat.

The guide wants you to contact a friend, to overcome your feeling of being along by connecting with someone else, and that is well and good. But, spend time doing something that will get your mind off of your problems. Don’t burden your friends with your problems.

Obviously, it is good when confronting a problem that is beyond your capacity to seek out advice. The question is: from whom?

For my part I believe that it is best to ask people who are seriously older and wiser. Relying on the wisdom of your peers is rarely a winning strategy.

If you need help solving a problem, ask a parent or a guidance counselor or a professional. You do not need someone who is going to feel your pain, but someone who has some expertise in problem-solving.

Often it happens that people are anxious because their problem does not admit of an easy solution. What do you do when all the options are bad? 

It's a good question, one that cannot be answered in a sentence or two. As a rule, it is better to do something rather than nothing. Even if your act does not solve the problem, at least it will define you as someone who addresses problems.

At the least, do not imagine for an instant that your anxiety is anything but a signal that you have a problem. It might not be the first time you feel anxious, but today’s problem is not a sign of an unresolved infantile trauma.

If you think that your problems are all throwbacks to your past, you will be that much less able to deal with present day reality.

If anxiety is telling you that you have a problem, the solution is to deal with the problem. The more you do it the more you will improve your confidence in solving problems. The more you feel confident about your ability to handle difficulties, the less anxiety you will feel in the future.

1 comment:

JP said...

"At the least, do not imagine for an instant that your anxiety is anything but a signal that you have a problem. It might not be the first time you feel anxious, but today’s problem is not a sign of an unresolved infantile trauma."

I think this depends on the underlying neural wiring of the individual involved.

You are presuming standard, non-traumatic wiring.

For 95% of people, this statement is essentially accurate. I am one of these people and so, I presume are most, if not almost all, of your readers.

For the other 5%, not so much, to varying degrees.

The wiring issue relates to the biological development of human infants and children.

I'm not using real percentages. They are more for illustration than anything else.