But What if…
Exploring the Role of Anxiety in Your Life
Our culture is obsessed with safety. There are alarm systems on our houses, locks on our cars, and layers of security on our technology. It can take hours just to get through security in airports. Companies take numerous precautions to avoid lawsuits by putting disclaimers on products, publishing expiration dates, and warning customers not to stick a hairdryer in water. While it is appropriate to take necessary precautions to care for one’s health and physical safety, most people find that the sense of security and peace that they anticipated finding from all these efforts is never attained. They continue to be plagued by the question of “What if…” What if my car breaks down? What if my girlfriend decides she does not like me? What if I stumble over my words in the interview? No alarm system is of any use in these cases. And so, the question continues to haunt you into your kitchen. It follows you into your bedroom and gives you no respite when you are trying to fall asleep at night. The doors may be securely locked, but you find yourself being robbed anyway. Robbed of a good night’s sleep. Robbed of being able to enjoy time with your friends and family because you are preoccupied by your “what if’s.”
Ineffective Coping Strategies
A more conventional name for “what if’s” is anxiety. Naturally, because anxiety can create a significant amount of discomfort, you have likely looked for ways to run from it. Some people use substances, Netflix, or work to run from it. But as soon as the effect of these avoidance strategies wears off, the anxiety is back at it and usually stronger. The self-defeating cycle continues from there.
Researchers have studied the relationship between chronic anxiety, also known as trait anxiety, and the focus of attention to detect potential threat in the person’s surroundings. According to Richards, Benson, and Hadwin (2012), trait anxiety increases individuals’ likelihood to notice potential threats in their surroundings even if the threat is irrelevant to them. This hypervigilance to threat creates increased difficulty for a person to shift his or her attention to the task at hand. In this particular study, participants with trait anxiety were significantly more distracted by angry faces even in their peripheral vision than participants with state (situational) anxiety. This hypervigilance can be exhausting which is one reason avoidance strategies become attractive.
So how do you break the cycle? Shaming yourself for your anxiety does not work. Covering it up or avoiding it does not work. It is easy at this point to become exasperated and feel a bit helpless to conquer the anxiety. What if (no pun intended), instead of running from the anxious thoughts and condemning them, you choose to be curious and compassionate towards these thoughts? A counselor can be helpful to work with you on mindfulness, deep breathing or other self-soothing techniques to give you enough mental space to reflect on your emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual needs which you may have been ignoring as you sought to run from your anxiety. (For more information on self-soothing strategies, see blog post Taming the Anxiety Beast).
Another important step is bringing your anxiety into relationship. Instead of isolating yourself with your anxious thoughts, bring them out into the light. Anxiety breeds in isolation because you are not meant to weather the storms of life alone. Consider what Jakobsen, Horwood, and Fergusson (2012) learned in their research about the powerful impact that secure parent-child attachment can have on the child’s anxiety. They found that, in a sample of anxious and withdrawing adolescents, the presence of future anxiety disorders and withdrawal decreased with greater parent/child attachment during adolescence. The parent/child relationship functions as a protective factor against anxiety even though the parent cannot protect the child from all harm.
We never outgrow this need for close relationships in which we know we will be loved and cared for regardless of our circumstances. As a Christian, my faith in God’s promise of His presence has been a great comfort to me the older I have gotten. God says in Scripture, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, New International Version). He has not promised that people will not suffer. In fact, we can expect suffering and hardships (See John 16:33), but God reassures his people, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isaiah 43:2, NIV).
So as you walk through this year with all of its unknowns and “what ifs,” remember to let others walk with you so that anxiety does not become your master. And consider how you could be that person for someone else to encourage and remind them that they are not alone.
Jakobsen, I. S., Horwood, L. J., & Fergusson, D. M. (2012). Childhood anxiety/withdrawal, adolescent parent-child attachment and later risk of depression and anxiety disorder. Journal of child and family studies, 21(2), 303–310.
Richards, H. J., Benson, V., & Hadwin, J. A. (2012). The attentional processes underlying impaired inhibition of threat in anxiety: The remote distractor effect. Cognition and emotion, 26(5), 934-942.