15 minutes of listening to psychologist and New York Times Best Selling Author Lisa Damour on 3 Steps of Anxiety Overload can make anxiety so much more understandable. As she talks about healthy and unhealthy anxiety, I felt like I had a way to differentiate the two.
In August 2022, Dr. Damour gave a TED talk with over 1.4 million views. Her straightforward view of anxiety and how to deal with it is appreciated. Her message is that anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. It serves as an alarm system that helps to keep us safe. It can motivate us, make us aware of risks, and move us to solve problems.
I've summarized some of her key points here below:
Anxiety is normal
Dr. Damour makes a big point that helps immeasurably:
Anxiety is normal, protective, and useful. — Dr. Lisa Damour
She suggests that anxiety is the most systematic of human emotions. It has healthy forms that we all know and serve as our alarm system. It is so meaningful to know that the issue we worry about actually makes sense much of the time.
As she describes it, here is how anxiety works:
Our Body Reacts — We all have heard about the ancient fight-or-flight response that we have within us. This is our early warning system which activates our sympathetic nervous system.
We Label It Anxiety — Her first question is whether anxiety is this the right name for what we are experiencing. Could it really be excitement? Or perhaps apprehension? And if it is, how does that change how we feel about our experience?
Defining Unhealthy Anxiety
Lisa Damour describes unhealthy anxiety as a situation where we feel anxiety with no real threat. Or, when our response is much stronger than what the situation calls for. She suggests that when we engage in catastrophic thinking we either overestimate the risk or underestimate our ability to respond to a situation and handle it.
In dealing with unhealthy anxiety, Damour suggests that we ask ourselves the following:
Am I imagining this risk or situation is worse than it really is?
In my view, this question gives perspective on the real threat of the risk. It helps you understand that it may not be as bad as first thought.
Do I have more say in how this will go than I give myself credit for?
This question suggests the possibility that I may have more strength and capacity to deal with the anxiety-provoking situation.
Box Breathing: A Strategy to Deal with Anxiety
When we feel edgy and impatient, or feel the tightening of our throat or pit in our solar plexus, Damour recommends the simple strategy of Box Breathing. This techniques is used for a variety of purposes and is even used by Navy Seals to deal with stressful situations, or to help with sleep.
Ultimately, this type of breathing helps turn down the anxiety dial.
From a scientific perspective, deep breathing helps because it activates the nerves on the surface of your lungs that transmit a message to your brain that everything is okay.
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system that counteracts the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (that part of our nervous system that experiences fight-or-flight.). The parasympathetic nervous system controls our rest-and-relax response. Deep breathing can help quiet the sympathetic nervous system and therefore reduce feelings of stress or anxiety.
Box breathing can be as simple as:
Inhaling for a count of 1, 2, 3
Holding for a count of 1, 2, 3
Exhaling for a count of 1, 2, 3
Waiting for a count of 1, 2, 3
Practicing deep breathing for 10 minutes can activate your rest-relaxation response, and help calm you down after a stressful event.
In her TED Talk, Dr. Damour makes an important point about avoidance.
When we are afraid, our instinct is to get away or make the feelings stop. Avoidance helps, but only for a short time. She makes it clear that "avoidance feeds anxiety." Avoidance is not a surprising response to a stressful situation since it is easier to avoid or not do something, then face it.
The problem with avoidance is that nothing changes.
Damour explains that "your beliefs about what you fear is never challenged with new or competing data." Her straightforward advice is to face the issues we want to avoid by taking small, incremental steps. This allows the person to tolerate a bit of discomfort, and helps them dial down the anxiety.
Each small step helps to build confidence and resolve anxiety.
Each small step tells our brain that "we did it" and "we survived,"
Each small step prepares us to take the next step.
As always, please let us know what you think!
Damour, Lisa. 3 Steps of Anxiety Overload - and How You Can Take Back Control. YouTube (TED). February 14, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oITW0XsZd3o.
Swiner, Carmelita (Reviewed). What Is Box Breathing? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/balance/what-is-box-breathing.
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