I am an anxious person. I could be born this way. I could be made this way. It is probably both. Anxiety is first and foremost a biological phenomenon. When I am anxious, I am nervous. I am restless. I have a hard time concentrating. My heart beat fast. In extreme cases, some people have palpitations or difficulty breathing. Some of us are genetically more predisposed to anxiety than others. From a cultural and sociological perspective, we also acquire anxiety through social engineering. Our culture sends signals to us about how we should behave in relation to each other in various situations. Those can also nurture anxiety. Finally, situations that are out of control certainly create temporary anxiety. During this unprecedented time of COVID-19, the uncertainty of the future for many people collectively generate a massive level of anxiety. I am no exception.
In existential theory developed by Victor Frankl, Royo May, and later expanded by Victor Yalom, anxiety is an evolutionary tool humans have developed in order to survive. I myself have not studied enough about the evolution and physiology and neurobiology of anxiety to decide the validity of that assertion. In my professional, research, and personal experience, anxiety is a pervasive condition majority of us live with. It can be quite uncomfortable even when it is not diagnosable as a clinical illness. What is more, often we do not recognize our own anxiety on the day-to-day level. When we fail to recognize it, we miss out on the opportunity to choose the best available tools to manage it. Consequently, anxiety can drive us to do some self- and other-destructive things.
Lacking the tools to manage our anxiety:
Since anxiety is such a pervasive element of our lives, the way we cope with our anxiety can determine the quality of life we live. However, because our school system doesn’t have much curriculum dedicated to emotional intelligence, our emotional self-awareness usually lags behind that of our intellectual capacity. While we hone our math and language skills for 12-16 years on average in the academic institutions, our emotional training is left largely to street learning and modeling by those around us such as our parents and teachers. Without an adequate emotional understanding of ourselves, many of us are effectively functioning adults with adolescent-level emotional skills. The survival-driven limbic and reptilian system that runs our emotion and body respectively are stuck mostly in fight-flight reflexes. The knowledge we learn with our prefrontal cortex is also limited to helping those animal instincts to carry out its mission of self-defense.
Coping with anxiety in unhealthy ways
When we are unaware of the original source of our anxiety, we easily project the root of our discomfort or unhappiness to the people around us or an event taking place. Usually, the closer those events or people are to us, the more likely they will become a scapegoat for our own anxiety. We attribute “what is wrong” to our spouse, relatives, teacher, bosses, and even children. We can project our own unhappiness onto that sock he left on the floor, or the new job she took on, the toys our children left out, or the new assignment our boss gave us. Having an external target we do not have to deal with the underlying sense of worthlessness or fear that caused our anxiety. As a result, we damage our emotional relationship with those closest to us because they need to defend themselves against our anxiety-induced negative behaviors and vice versa.
In many ways, having a social counterpart we can connect to is probably one of the healthier ways of coping with our anxiety. There is always a chance to repair the rupture with our loved ones when we return to our calmer period, as long as we are doing any physical injury. On the other hand, certain coping strategies are very harmful impacts on our own bodies. We use distractions to hide from our anxiety. One of the most common coping mechanisms is eating. There is a reason why obesity is one of the biggest health issues in especially the developed world, where life stress is particularly great. Besides eating, people depend on substances, alcohol, or sex to regulate their emotions. Long-term dependence on any of these can give us temporary relief from dealing with the real issue. In fact, over-dependence on even seemingly harmless things like exercise can hurt us without getting to the root of our condition.
Best ways to manage our anxiety
The healthy ways of dealing with anxiety are not secret. It is pretty straightforward: Mobilize our bodies to rid ourselves of the excess energy to return our body to a calm state, i.e. exercise; Meditate to quiet our minds and get away from the exacerbating effect of looping thoughts; get a good night of sleep; and if you are a sociable person, connect with those you feel loved with for emotional connection. Finally, if there is a specific issue that is causing the anxiety, as opposed to general restlessness, the help of a professional coach or counselor can be really valuable, such as career counseling, life coach, mental health professionals. This is how we return our mind, body, and emotion to an equilibrium. This is assuming we do not have any underlying illness that prevents us to even get to the gym, sit still and meet with others. If we do, then we must seek the help of medical professionals to assist us. Absent any issues that the medical community can diagnose, our own persistence in a healthy mind-body-emotion tune-up routine will do more for us than anyone else could.
At times, like during the present pandemic, our lifestyle or circumstances do not allow us to form the emotional connections or receive the validation we need to manage our anxiety. This is particularly true for industrialized and individualized societies. More people live in isolation from even their own family of origin. Even during Cov-19 isolation, people in the collective culture are more likely to stay with more family members than those in individualist cultures. In the latter communities, seeing a coach or therapeutic professional on a regular basis, such as weekly or even monthly, can help us maintain our emotional equilibrium through a systematic and scientific approach. We generally accept that we can benefit from guidance and motivation from a coach in the gym, even though we probably all know how to run or use exercise equipment. It is no different, or rather, should be more so with our emotional regulation. This is something that plays a huge part in our daily joy and overall health. Unfortunately, we have never had a class on that subject in our school curriculum. Fortunately, it is never too late to educate ourselves and help ourselves.