We’ve all experienced stress, worry, and anxiety from time to time. For some of us, or at certain times in life, it occurs frequently and can feel overwhelming. At its worst, anxiousness can even impair daily functioning. A lot of factors work together to cause the experience that we call anxiety. Let’s take a look at some specific ways that it develops:
From Chronic Stress Conditions
Most of us equate stress with anxiousness, and oftentimes, these two do go together. However, when we talk about anxiety as opposed to a passing stressor (a stressful life event that comes and goes rather quickly), there is a lot more to it than just feeling stressed. Some people grow up or live in incredibly stressful environments (e.g., low-income households, experiences of neglect and abuse), and these long-term stressful conditions can make people more vulnerable to anxiety, and in some cases, weaken their ability to handle stress. If your system is already taxed by dealing with chronic, daily stress, your ability to manage more stressors thrown your way will very likely be compromised. A buildup of chronic stressful situations that do not go away quickly can lead to an experience of anxiety.
Have you ever heard someone say, “You don’t need to worry,” and you want to answer with, “I do need to worry!”? When we are experiencing anxiety, we often believe it’s helpful, because it gets reinforced. When we feel anxious about something and spend time ruminating and worrying, often everything turns out just fine. We can then believe that anxiety helped achieve the desired outcome. There is an old quote by an unknown author that goes, “Worrying works! 90% of the things I worry about never happen.” We continue to feel anxious and sometimes become almost fearful that if we are not anxious, things will not work out. Most of the time, this isn’t even a process we choose. The cycle gets reinforced, and the brain keeps it going without our intent. Reinforcement is brain food; when a behavior is reinforced, it is likely to occur again.
One function of anxiety is that it helps us to avoid other issues. This can be the most puzzling reason for anxiety. Most of us hate the experience of anxiety, and at first glance, it does not make sense that we would use anxiety to avoid anything. Rather, we want to avoid anxiety! Think of it like this: Anxiety gives our mind something to chew on. We may not like it, and it may not feel pleasant, but it occupies us, nonetheless.
Anxiety tells us that something is wrong and we need to fixate on it, wring our hands, figure it out, look up facts, check out others’ opinions, etc., and it keeps us very busy. Sometimes it keeps us so busy that we can’t focus on much else. If we are having an uncomfortable emotional experience or find ourselves in a painful situation that cannot be solved (e.g. a job we cannot quit, the death of a loved one), sometimes we are so overwhelmed that anxiety jumps in to try to give relief. We may prefer (on some level) the experience of spending our time figuring out an unfixable problem than sitting with the feeling of grief or helplessness.
From Other Emotions
Another function of anxiety is its ability to hide other, more difficult emotions, because it is a secondary emotion. Anxiousness (or any secondary emotion) happens when the primary emotion is not sufficiently experienced and processed. In other words, your anxiety serves as an avoidance (see above for more explanation on this). When we experience it, we don’t feel the underlying emotion. Our way out of anxiety is to feel this primary emotion. When we resolve a primary emotion, the secondary emotion regulates.
One of the most unpleasant aspects of anxiousness is that once we are aware of it, we can start to feel anxious about our anxiousness. The more we work to avoid it, ignore it, fight it, or self-criticize it, the more space it takes up in our mind. We end up feeling anxious about having anxiety and sometimes anxious about the rare times we do not feel anxiety. We may also experience additional concern about others noticing or criticizing our anxiousness.
If you struggle with anxiety, consider seeking therapy. Therapy can help you safely address and resolve unrelenting anxiousness. A therapist who practices Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a good choice. DBT can help you build skills to address any vulnerabilities you have, to identify and cope with primary emotions, and to make more effective choices than avoidance. They can also teach the skill of Radical Acceptance, which is learning how to accept things that cannot be changed, rather than adding to your suffering by fighting it or feeling more anxious. If you could benefit from these skills, contact a qualified therapist and start shifting from surviving to thriving today!