The Anxiety Switch

I give a lot of talks to parents, young people and professional groups on the topic of anxiety. In most of the talks I pose the following question to the audience….

If I could reach inside your head and flick a switch so you never had to feel anxious again for the rest of your life would you let me?

Anywhere up to 40% of people in the audiences say yes they would let me if that were possible (and maybe more would put their hand’s up if they were’t already too anxious to indicate their preference in public…)

If you were someone who has struggled with anxiety you could understand how this would be a tempting prospect. Imagine that, never having to feel knots in the pit of your stomach again, never feeling like you were having a heart attack because of how fast your heart was beating or struggling to breathe like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. Never feeling again like your blushing was so obvious that you could light up a room in the dark or that the nervous energy in your trembling leg could power a small car. Imagine never having to worry about your head being bombarded with catastrophic thoughts of imminent doom around every corner. Ok so the switch has been flicked, so life will be infinitely better, won’t it…….?

Danger close

You’re walking home late at night, you hear footsteps behind you, your heart gives a little flutter, you look around you anxiously and spot this lad coming up behind you. In the normal course of events the anxiety activated flight response kicks in and you get the hell out of there as fast as your legs can carry you. Your mind recognises imminent danger, you breathe faster to get more oxygen to your heart which pumps it around your body and specifically to your muscles. The muscles kick into action and you run as fast as you can.

In our other scenario (anxiety switch off), we look around, spot this guy and maybe think “oh that’s a nice scarf, is that from Next?” or “the way you’re holding that gun is sooo Resevoir Dogs” or maybe “oh you’d like my wallet / purse, no problem here you go”. Not an ideal response I think you’d agree.

The Big Day

If you’ve experienced a wedding, I can only imagine the anxiety felt on the day, how late will she be, will she turn up at all, will someone lose the rings, will someone actually object when the famous words are uttered “If any person present knows of any lawful impediment to this marriage, they should speak now or forever hold their peace“. Will I trip over my wedding dress train walking down the aisle? All anxiety provoking, but all arguably add to the sense of occasion and anticipation on the day.

Imagine this situation without anxiety, about to walk down the aisle and you’re thinking “oh look, lots of people, nice flowers, I’m about to get married, that’s nice“. Might take away something from the sense of occasion perhaps?

First Kiss

That first kiss with the person we’ve waited an eternity to experience, we tense up, will they like it, will I be a good kisser, our heart’s pounding, stomach doing somersaults, breathing getting faster before that last moment when the lips touch.

Minus the emotion of anxiety I think it’s something more like “oh this is kissing, our lips are touching, interesting, suppose this is pleasant”. Not likely to be one of our most memorable moments irrespective of our “performance”

Thrill Seeking

Minus the feeling of anxiety, as we’re hurtling down at 100 miles per hour down a vertical train track, what would we feel, nothing much? Where’s the fun in that? For the overwhelming majority of people when their hear is pounding, when they’re screaming with absolute terror, when their clinging on for dear life, when their stomach is in bits and they are breathing so hard they don’t know if they can get air in fast enough, they recognise that this is what it’s supposed to feel like, and it’s fun.

For people who struggle with anxiety the suggestion that anxiety could be fun is a crazy idea. As Adam Sandler’s Mum in the movie the Waterboy might have uttered “Anxiety is the DEVIL”.

Anxiety is many different things, it can be our protector when there is justified danger around us or equally it can be fun when we’re on a roller coaster or getting scared at a scary movie or at halloween. If we didn’t experience anxiety then roller coasters or halloween would be non entities. Look at people coming off roller coasters, they’re normally laughing, after a big fright at halloween people laugh and joke about the fright they get. What we have to remember here is that the internal physiological experience we have when we are about to be married, to have a first kiss, to go on a roller coaster, to play a football final, to see if we’ve won a medal in an irish dancing competition or done well in an exam is exactly the same physiological response as when we get generally anxious. So what’s the difference?

Change the Lens

We need to change the lens in which we view anxiety. It gets a really bad rap, as something to be avoided at all costs. The problem with that is that anxiety is an emotion, just like happiness, sadness, anger and all the others. We’re pre-programmed to experience it and even if we wanted to we can’t turn it off and even if we could turn it off I would argue strongly that we shouldn’t. Of course anxiety can be uncomfortable, even downright terrifying, but it can also be fun, protective, productive and positive for us. What we need to do is embrace it for what it is, inevitable, not all bad, sometimes something to be embraced and welcomed.

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