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Anxiety: Fight or Flight & What Ifs

Instead of talking about the history of anxiety, different diagnosis, or how to cope with it, I am going to focus on what can trigger it in the first place. A disclaimer I would like to give is that I am going to only focus on a couple triggers of anxiety; many individuals are triggered by different things, but for the sake of this post not being as long as a novel I am going to stick to a couple: Fight or Flight & What Ifs.

The history of anxiety seems comical in this day and age because every era had their own theories for what anxiety actually was. Who knows, maybe years from now people will look back and us and think we were silly for how we labeled it! Either way, one thing is common throughout all generations: we identify anxiety as negative and we try to find ways to get rid of it. But the fact is most of the time we can’t just say we can “get rid” of anxiety, mainly because we all need a small amount of anxiety that we can label “healthy anxiety.”

Healthy anxiety is that small bit of worry and angst that may actually help you in a situation. Have a big test on Friday that you worry you won’t do well on? I bet that anxiety will make you study longer. Performing in a big show tomorrow? That anxiety will help you rehearse before show time. After all, if we had no worry what would motivate us to want to do even better in the future? However, in our generation we tend to take our healthy anxiety and blow it up into something bigger and unhealthy.

Let’s start with where anxiety came from, and stick with me, some of the history goes WAY back; I’ll begin with Fight or Flight. Fight or flight is an on/off switch we have in our way of thinking that helps us in a sticky situation. When we are in situations where we have to make a quick decision we rely on fight or flight: Will we stay and fight the situation, or leave altogether (flight)? We got these traits from our ancestors, the caveman. Cavemen had to hunt to survive and most of the time they put themselves in harm’s way. When they left their home to look for food and came across a deadly animal they had to decide quickly if they were going to stay and fight the beast and bring it home for dinner, or if they were going to save themselves by running away and getting to safety. This way of thinking started a revolution in our thought process, which is something we still use today.

The problem with how some of us use it in this day and age though, is that some people cannot decide on just one of the two options. For example, let’s say a daughter is getting into an argument with her mother. She can stay and fight, or she could just leave the situation. But what happens when she starts to overanalyze what she should do? It would look something like this:

“I’m going to stay here and fight with mom, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and I want to make sure I get my point across. But what if I get in trouble and get grounded? Maybe I should just say sorry and walk away. But if I walk away then she wins and I don’t get my point across. No, I should stay and argue with her, but I’m worried I’ll get in trouble. Maybe I should just go to my room…”

And it may not stop there. That type of racing thought process is what leads to negative anxiety and even potential panic attacks. When we get overwhelmed in situations sometimes it could be because we are thinking of the “What ifs” instead of the here and now. Thinking of the What Ifs make us think of what will happen in the future if we make the wrong decision. If I took the What Ifs out of the daughter’s head when she was analyzing what she should do her thought process would be much simpler:

“I’m going to stay here and fight with mom, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and I want to get my point across. Not doing it would make me feel disappointed in myself and I know that this is the best choice right now.”

This thought sounds confident and not worried about the potential outcome, which also alleviates anxiety.

Now, sometimes we cannot avoid the What Ifs and there is a way to help cope with those anxious thoughts. Sit down and write out the What Ifs that are on your mind. After you have them on paper, write down how you will realistically cope if those situations actually happened. Now you have a plan for if they occur, which helps take the worry out of the situation. For example, a young man is worried about going on a trip with his brother. He does not like to travel because it makes him think about the What Ifs. What if we get into an accident? What if we don’t arrive on time? What if we can’t visit everything and everyone we want? This young man can sit down and realistically think about what he can do. If he gets into an accident he will have emergency numbers already programmed into his phone as well as emergency contact people for first responders. He will make a timeline so he makes sure he and his brother leave the house on time, and allow for extra time in case they need to make stops along the way. This will help them arrive on time. He will also have an itinerary ready for the trip as a checklist so they can see everything/everyone that time will allow.

“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about our future, it comes from wanting to control it.”

Anxiety can be controlled, but first the individual needs to accept that they cannot control EVERYTHING else. Focus on the here and now and how you can sit down and realistically resolve the current worry. Make a plan and follow it, a plan will help you focus on finishing something rather than all of the What Ifs that come along while trying to complete a task.