Anxiety or tension is our body's way of telling us that something is
going wrong and we need to correct it. It is an absolutely essential
signal, necessary for our survival and well being. If primitive humans
did not have food, the anxious anticipation of hunger motivated them
to find food. If a worker hasn't been productive yet today, the fear of
criticism from a supervisor or co-worker helps him/her get busy. If I
am driving a little too fast on a rainy night on tires with 70,000 miles
on them, my concern about safety slows me down. These are valid
reasons for feeling that action is needed to avoid trouble.
Isn't it wonderful that we have a built-in automatic warning
system? Yes, except when the system goes awry. Sometimes the
expectation of trouble or danger is wrong; we exaggerate the
problems or become tense for no good reason. At other times, the
warning is accurate but nothing can be done, and we fret needlessly
about our inability to change the situation. Sometimes, we have this
stress alarm going off, but we don't know what is wrong. In each of
these cases, we are psychologically and bodily all tensed up to run or
fight an enemy, but the real enemy (the creator of the scary situation)
Obviously, a major problem is telling the difference between
realistic, helpful tensions, fears, or worries and unrealistic, unhealthy
nervousness. This is because we all could start fretting about some
possibly stressful event at almost any time. Risks are all around us.
Thus, unrealistic worries are over-reactions to a tolerable situation or a
prolonged over-reaction to a threatening situation that can not be
avoided. But how can you be sure a situation won't cause trouble? You
can't. How can you be sure you won't handle the problem any better if
you worried about it a lot more? You can't be. However, we can learn
to recognize extreme over-reactions, e.g. being terrified while flying or
obsessing for hours about an insoluble problem. But a little worry
about crashing while flying is realistic and some thought is necessary
to know that you can't do much about a problem. So, how much time
should you devote to a particular problem? There isn't an exact
answer; that's why some of us let anxiety overwhelm us.
Instead of an over-reaction, some people under-react to a risk.
They dismiss or deny it. They never get serious at work or prepare for
a "bad spell;" they die on rain-soaked highways. Maybe they are
unaware of the danger; maybe they just prefer to not think about it;
maybe the situation is so threatening that they are scared witless, and
shove awareness of the problem out of their mind. Both over-reactors
and under-reactors to a threat are poorly prepared to deal with it.
Both need to learn to react differently. This chapter deals more with
over-reactors than with under-reactors.
Everyone has some anxiety