We have all heard that there is an epidemic of mental ill health. It was sizeable before the pandemic. It has become much worse now.
The problem today is that many people have come to fear the way they feel when they are anxious. We fear and try to avoid situations that are not objectively dangerous-but which make us feel anxious. When we become intolerant of uncertainty and risk, and come to fear the experience of anxiety itself, our world becomes smaller.
Some people go to considerable lengths to avoid anxiety in society: with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the rise of “snowplough” parenting, when parents try to remove all obstacles from their children’s lives.
Nobody really enjoys anxiety, but the worst thing we can do with anxiety is to try to suppress it. Just because it’s not enjoyable doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. Changing how you approach your fear can help reframe it.
Let me give you an example. I don’t like spiders all that much. I’m not phobic, but I certainly don’t want to cuddle them. I lived alone for some years, which meant having to deal with spiders. Killing them or hoovering them up is a vile thing to do. Nope. Not doing that. So I had to learn to trap and put them out. Once I discovered that they are a) short sighted and b) cold blooded and as keen to avoid me as I was them, things got much easier.
Anxiety can be a positive emotion, alerting us to things that need addressing and giving us the energy to do just that. It might not feel good, but it’s trying to help us.
Emotions are there for a reason. If we are angry, it’s because somebody or something is getting in our way, and we need to defend ourselves. If we are anxious, it’s because there is something we need to do to prepare for the future.
In the UK, prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications have almost doubled over the past 15 years, with a sharp rise amongst under-25s. We can create a healthier response if we rethink anxiety and reframe our responses to it.
Start by distinguishing anxiety from fear. Fear is about present threats. For example, if a large and savage dog is about to attack you, you are likely to feel fear. You can see or feel that there is an immediate danger, and your body responds with fight or flight, so that you can protect yourself.
Anxiety is all about the future. If we’re socially anxious and our way of coping with that is by no longer going out, that’s a disorder. Being nervous about going out is not a disorder. There are distinct levels of anxiety. What you might term “everyday anxiety” is there to help us and we should be listening to it, not running away from it.
How we view our anxiety is important. This was demonstrated in an experiment where socially anxious people were asked to give an off the cuff talk to a panel of judges who had been told to look bored and uninterested. The people were split into two groups. The first was sent straight in. The second group was given a pep talk first, where it was explained to them that their anxiety was helping them to perform better.
After the test, the people who had had the pep talk had lower blood pressure, their heart rate was slower and calmer, and they had performed better. Embracing their anxiety had a positive effect.
Avoidance builds a sense that we are weak and unable to cope with difficult things – which is not true. Our emotional systems are like our immune system. If our immune system isn’t exposed to germs, it remains weak. If our muscles aren’t used, they become feeble and weaken. Don’t let anxiety make your decisions for you. It’s only by feeling our anxiety – listening and acting on it – that we can cope better next time.
Perhaps being anxious can be a call to action. Yes, of course there will be tough times ahead, but if we look anxiety in the face and do what needs to be done, there will be good times, too.
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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.
Copyright © 2022 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.
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