“Why are you anxious? You have nothing to be anxious about!” If you have ever experienced anxiety, odds are you may have heard this before or may have thought it about yourself. You know you are anxious but cannot pinpoint the reason why. Since you cannot pinpoint the reason, you assume there must not be one, that your anxiety is misplaced. However, if you are anxious there is always a reason for it.
There are two main types of anxiety that people experience. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to these as good anxiety and other anxiety. Good anxiety happens when we are excited about something. It is the butterflies you feel in your stomach right before getting on a roller coaster or speaking/performing in front of a crowd. Often it is not even referred to as anxiety but being nervous, or “nerves.” There is excitement that runs parallel to the anxiety that helps temper any distress, so the net feeling is usually positive.
The other type of anxiety is, well, other anxiety. It is not bad, though it sometimes is thought to be. This is the kind of anxiety that occurs when you are fearful of something. This is the “gut” feeling that occurs when something seems wrong but there is not a readily identifiable reason for the feeling. Being fear-based, the distress it creates is more easily noticed, leading to the inaccurate assumption that this type of anxiety is inherently bad. However, it serves an important and necessary function.
Other anxiety keeps us alive. When humans were first developing as cave-dwellers thousands of years ago, nearly everything in the environment was a legitimate threat. If you were not perpetually on guard, you might get snatched up by a saber-toothed tiger. If you did not have the protection of other people, you were easy prey for a pack of hungry wolves. Humans, like all other animals, developed into social creatures out of necessity.
As a species, humans have come a long way since the days of cave-dwelling. However, the human brain still retains the mechanisms that developed in that environment. Those mechanisms are still active today, ever vigilant for threats and seeking the safety of the group. Fears of embarrassment and rejection, and the need to feel accepted elicit such strong emotions because they are tied to the need to be with other people to survive. The brain is wired to see everything as a threat, even if what is can logically be separated from what is not.
While threats to survival exist today (cars crashing at 60+ mph and airborne illnesses, for example), they are not as numerous as they once were. Previous death sentences can now be easily prevented, managed, or treated with little effort, but the human brain in many ways still lives in the environment in which it developed. Because of this, people become anxious for a variety of reasons that are not always apparent. There may be excitement over something or the perception that something is going to cause harm or rejection. Perhaps once the reason for it is known, the anxiety will dissipate. Perhaps not—what matters is that being anxious happens for a reason.
If you or anyone else questions why you are anxious, the difficulty in finding the reason does not change that it exists. Instead of declaring about yourself or someone else, “I/you have nothing to be anxious about,” try, “I am/you are anxious about something. I’ll try to/let me help you manage it while I/we try to find out why.”
Tom Duvall, LISW-S, is a Licensed Independent Social Worker with The Willow Center and can be reached at 419-720-5800.