The Intelligence of Anxiety:
I recently read an article linking high levels of anxiety with a high IQ, which made me think, “What is the intelligence of our anxiety?”
To better explore this topic, it is essential to understand what anxiety is and how it works.
Understanding Our Anxiety
Dictionary.com defines anxiety as, “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”
This is a relatively good definition, and something that I am certain almost all of us can relate to. I would add that the frustrating aspect of anxiety is that it’s intrusive, preventing us from accomplishing what we want from our lives.
Not only does anxiety manifest highly undesirable emotional responses, we often respond in physical ways: we begin to sweat, our stomachs churn and suddenly we can’t think or speak clearly.
Our ability to feel this anxiety evolved for a reason. It kept us alive. The problem today is that our anxiety often occurs in the face of unrealistic, or in the absence of, true threats.
So what do we do about it? Let us first explore our negative coping patterns.
When we feel anxious, the first thought we often have is, “How do I get rid of this?”
Of course, we want to be rid of our anxiety, as we discussed above, because all of these physical and mental symptoms are horribly unpleasant!
The problem with attempting to rid ourselves of anxiety is that anxiety triggers our “fight or flight” response, which often causes us to engage in a multitude of false coping mechanisms, all of which can be categorized as one of the following false coping mechanisms:
- Shutting down, or ignoring our anxiety
- Fighting our anxiety
- Externalizing our anxiety
I would love to talk to someone who has been successful in using any of these strategies in dealing with their anxiety. When we engage in any of these above behaviors, we are not actually dealing with the problem; we are just hoping to get rid of the problem as fast as possible. But none of these coping mechanisms work.
So, how do we deal with anxiety?
Now that we have explored how most of us tend to fight against and effectively increase our anxiety levels, what can we actually do to help with our anxiety?
This is where it is important to recognize the intelligence of our anxiety and learn to befriend our anxiety.
We don’t have to actively invite anxiety into our lives to befriend it. Befriending our anxiety simply means learning to recognize and accept our anxiety.
Anxiety is common.
(I apologize if this makes you feel like you are no longer as unique as you thought you were, but nearly everyone experiences some type of anxiety at some point, so we may as well accept that fact.)
The tricky and seemingly contradictory part to anxiety is that the more we try to fight it, the more it grows.
If we could see our anxiety for what it is—an evolutionary process designed to help us—we would acknowledge our anxieties and set them aside.
If it were this simple, we would all be living carefree lives doing everything we wanted to. Free from anxiety.
Often, however, we spend our entire lives building complex and negative “anxiety traps” that we wholeheartedly believe to be our truth.
Even after realizing what we have created, deconstructing and replacing these negative traps with positive and helpful beliefs takes time.
Another important concept is learning to disentangle our sense of self from our anxiety. Anxiety is so powerful that we often use statements such as “I am anxious” or “I am an anxious person.”
Using these statements, we identify fully with our anxiety.
Instead, try using this statement: “In this moment, I feel anxious.”
While seemingly subtle, this begins the process of detaching anxiety from how we define ourselves, leading us to more easily work with our anxiety. It is much easier to work with something when it is not a defining part of our identity. This statement also provides the possibility of change, instead of an absolute, unchanging feeling, it is simply in this moment. Perhaps the next moment will be different.
Working with our anxiety often begins with a gentle yet progressive process of building up our courage by starting small and moving forward, a process greatly assisted through therapy and beginning a mindfulness practice.
Author of this article is Ian Anderson.
He is a psychotherapist, located in Denver and Boulder, Colorado.
Check out his website here.