title:The True Message of Anxiety
author:Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
Anxiety is a feeling that something bad might happen and that you will not be able or willing to cope. Misinterpreting the true message of your anxiety keeps you walking on eggshells.
First of all, anxiety is an important, useful emotion. Without it, you would be killed crossing the street. It’s a response to a real, imagined, or anticipated change in the environment. It tells you to focus, to figure out how to deal with the change. Mental focus means shutting out all information-processing except that which is immediately useful to solving the problem. A fire in the room stirs anxiety to get you to stop thinking about what you’ll wear to the party tonight, so you can focus on how to put out the fire.
Anxiety becomes a problem if it stimulates an underlying feeling of incompetence, caused by core hurts of powerlessness and inadequacy. In other words, you don’t know what to do, and your brain doesn’t know what to focus on. So it begins to scan, which means it takes in a lot more surface information a lot more rapidly, with little discernment of what is relevant. In other words, your thoughts race forward like a runaway freight train. The scanning process itself raises anxiety as the problem seems more and more unsolvable in the flurry of possibilities, most of which are unrelated and improbable. That’s why, research shows, raising someone’s anxiety about making mistakes causes them to make more. You may have noticed this with your children. If you or your husband yells at them for making mistakes, you can bet that they’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over. Yelling at children to be careful after they’ve dropped a glass, for instance, makes them associate anxiety with picking up the glass. Instead of focusing on how to pick it up, they start to scan when they get near it and pay less attention to what they’re doing and more to what they’re thinking. Of course, this increases the likelihood of dropping the glass. (To get them to focus, calmly tell them, “When you pick up the glass, be sure that you can feel it in the palm of your hand.”)
Scanning inevitably produces:
Conflicting Interpretations: The anxiety you feel when your husband works late at night gives rise to the interpretation that he may have had an accident or injury and conflicting ones that he is neglecting you, abandoning you, or being unfaithful to you. At the same time that you want to help him, you want to kill him.
Uncertainty: This feels like, “I’m not sure what it means, but it’s probably not good.”
Vacillation: The flowers he sent you mean in one moment that he loves you and in the next that he’s feeling guilty about loving someone else. One moment they mean that he’s sweet and thoughtful and in the next that he’s setting you up for manipulation, and so on.
Conflicting interpretations, uncertainty, and vacillation only raise self-doubt, lower confidence, and keep you walking on eggshells. The practice of HEALS, a technique developed to deal with high arousal emotions, will help you regulate the core hurts of powerlessness and inadequacy, which aggravate anxiety. (It’s offered at compassionpower.com). But it takes several weeks of practicing HEALS to make your response automatic. In the meantime, try to see your anxiety for what it is — a signal to focus, learn more about the situation, and increase your ability to cope. The first step in correctly interpreting the signal of your anxiety is to appreciate your competence.
Appreciating Your Competence
Scientific studies of people who have a well-developed sense of competence have taught us a few things about it. Competent people are able to do tasks that are important to them reasonably well. “Important to them” is the key. People simply do not perform unimportant tasks as well as they perform tasks that are important to them. You make more emotional investment and use more mental resources in performing tasks that you feel are important; for the less important ones, you tend to run on automatic pilot. If your husband says or implies that you are incompetent, he is saying either that something is more important to him than it is to you or that you are not perfect.
And that brings us to the second part of the concept of competence: that one is able to perform important tasks reasonably well. Competence does not mean perfect performance, it means good enough performance. Studies show that perfectionists generally do not feel competent. The measure of “good enough” is always just out of their reach, so nothing ever seems right to them. When your perfectionist husband says or implies that you are incompetent, he really means that he doesn’t feel competent, as he can never do anything perfectly. Thus he tries to hold you to a standard of perfection, which, in his heart, he knows that he cannot meet.
Like everything else that is important about you, your sense of competence is internal, and you need to get in touch with it within yourself — whether or not your husband ever recognizes the folly of his ways. Always remember, your sense of competence comes from your core value. Use your Core Value Bank before attempting a task that’s especially important to you.
You are competent because you cope with most day-to-day tasks and solve most of the problems that are both important to you and within your control. You look for solutions, for ways to make a situation better; you view mistakes merely as feedback to correct your course of action. In your core value, you know you feel able, confident, eager, enthusiastic, and realistically optimistic. Whenever you are thoughtful, solution-oriented, smart, and self-regulating, you reinforce your sense of competence. The following are a few tips to help you appreciate it more:
1. Take responsibility for everything you do, think, and feel. Always take responsibility for solutions to your problems. Only taking responsibility for solu¬tions (rather than blame for causes) gives you power.
2. Focus on what you can control your ability to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect rather than what you cannot control, like the opinions and behavior of your husband.
3. Think in terms of solutions rather than problems. Be flexible, think multiple-solutions there’s almost always more than one.
4. Realize genuine confidence if you make a mistake, you can fix it. (Research shows that once you give yourself permission to make mistakes, you’ll make fewer.)
5. Step back and see things in wider contexts, observing the complexity of issues.
6. Stand or sit up straight and take up as much room as possible.
7. Smile as much as you can.
Numbers 6 and 7 need explanation. You may have noticed that whenever people feel helpless or dependent, they tend to curl up, arms pressed against the side, bent over slightly, taking up as little room as possible. Their posture takes the form of a hurt child. Very often a simple adjustment in posture makes you feel more competent. Stand or sit up straight; take up as much room as possible, and you are more likely to feel empowered.
Why should you smile more, even when you don’t feel like it? Recent discoveries about neuropeptides the molecules that carry emotional messages throughout the body suggest that smiling is a two-way street. When you are happy, your brain sends a message to the muscles around the mouth to smile. But surprisingly, whenever you smile the muscles around the mouth send the same message to the brain. It doesn’t have to be a whopping, toothy grin; the slightest of smiles will help you appreciate your competence as well as your other wonderful attributes.