January 23, 2014 in Stress and Coping

Studies have shown thatindividuals who experience frequent anxiety often misperceive a situation orpossible event as being more dangerous or likely to occur than it really is. Forexample, imagine you’re boarding an airplane and find your heart startspounding, your palms become sweaty, and your breathing rate has increased. Asyou make your way to your seat your mind starts to focus in on a story you sawon the news about a plane crash. You briefly overhear another passenger talkingabout a storm headed in the direction where your plane is going. You sit inyour seat and start to feel a sense of panic and want nothing more at thatmoment than to get up and flee from the plane to solid ground and safety. Duringsuch an experience it can be difficult to consider all the available facts. Ina moment when your body is sweating, your heart is pounding, and your stomachis in knots, danger can seem imminent and very real. Your body is primed for fleeingand your brain focuses in on the facts supporting how your body is feeling(that danger is likely).  Now imagine youdecided to leave the plane and forgo the flight. The anxiety would decrease,your hands would stop sweating, your heart rate would slow, and your breathingwould return to normal. You may feel relieved that you “avoided danger.” Then,as the plane flies away your thoughts wander to the missed vacation and timewith friends whom you had planned to visit and who would be expecting you atthe airport on the plane that just left without you.

While avoiding the thingswe fear is effective in the short term for reducing anxiety, the avoidance behaviorstrengthens the perception of danger and provides support that “fleeing” isnecessary. However, excessive fear and anxiety can get in the way of living anddoing the things we want and need. Sometimes the threat “alarm bells” in ourbody can go off when the likeliness of a threat occurring is actually very low.Fortunately there are many methods that can help reduce anxiety so that majorlife disruptions can be avoided and/or reduced. One approach to reducefears/anxiety is to assess all the facts about the situation and theprobability of the feared event actually happening. For example, how likely isit the plane will crash in comparison to the likeliness of the plane arrivingsafely? Another important technique to fight anxiety is learning how to physicallycalm your body so your anxiety symptoms are not misperceived as “proof” ofthreat. Learning to purposefully slow and lengthen your breath can be a simple wayto reduce tension in your body so that you can calmly and accurately view yoursurroundings and consider all the facts. Practicing facing our fears in smallmanageable steps is one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety over time.Repetition is crucial and remembering to start small and work your way up sothat you can experience success along the way is also important. Start bypracticing tolerating feelings of anxiety without avoiding the feared event.For example, if talking in front of a large group sets off your alarm bellschoose to start by saying hello to two new people and then work up to makingsmall talk with an individual, then two, etc. It is important to work your wayup to the more difficult situations while experiencing small successes as youmake change. Lastly, consider seeking professional help from a therapist if youranxiety has impacted several areas of your life and seems too overwhelming toconquer on your own.