Answering Your Questions: How To Know What Is Reasonable Anxiety, and What Is “Just Anxiety”
Knowing how to tell what is reasonable anxiety from anxiety that is unreasonable is something many people wrestle with, and isn’t always easy. People commonly ask me how to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety, and how to know when their worries are reasonable, and when they aren’t. After taking part in my mini e-course on How To Hack Anxiety, Julie reached out with a similar question that I thought other readers might find interesting:
I just LOVE your approach. I have been diagnosed with anxiety but generally it’s manageable. However, a shake-up at work and the criticism of a new boss has recently eroded my confidence and sent my anxiety soaring. My main struggle is accurately interpreting criticism about my work and what it means about my skills and future. Friends think the situation isn’t as dire as I worry, which calms me! But how does one learn to accurately recognize reality and one’s anxious response? Your posts have inspired me to channel my anxiety into action, which does help but I would like to go deeper than that.
Julie asks a good question here – differentiating between reality and one’s anxious response. It isn’t always easy to know when our anxiety is helping us, and when it seems to be bothering us for nothing.
When it comes to the things we care about most, anxiety helps keep us tune into our priorities, even if listening can be a delicate and complicated process. We may not like the feeling, or what anxiety is signaling, but anxiety is always there trying to keep us safe, and protecting what we care about most.
Julie’s concerns are illustrative of how confusing anxiety can be, especially when it comes to teasing apart what anxiety is reasonable, and what isn’t. Is there something to worry about or am I just being irrationally anxious? is the question so many people like Julie wrestle with when anxiety rears its head.
Here are a few tools to help take control, and decide for yourself how your anxiety is trying to help:
1. Recognize no form of anxiety is meaningless.
First off, I would suggest anxiety is never “bothering us for nothing.” Anxiety fires for reasons that are important, sending us signals we need to hear. Try not to close yourself off from your anxiety when it flares, and instead breathe into it enough that you can work with it. The goal is to understand it, so you can use it.
2. Use your anxiety – whatever it is – to take control.
Taking control might be the single most important thing we can do when anxiety strikes. And taking control is active. You are doing something with your anxiety.
When it comes to taking control, determining rational from irrational anxiety is the first key action we need to take in getting our bearings. Knowing what we are dealing with is critical to determining what we should do.
Rather than spiraling into crippling self-doubt after a challenging meeting with your boss, instead take control of your anxiety and determine what is reasonable first. Your boss may have some good points about how you can improve, but this doesn’t mean that you are failing or will never be able to succeed.
3. Sort what is possible from probable.
In other words, what is something reasonable and rational to worry about (like disappointing your boss and risking their disapproval), and what is irrational (believing your boss hates you, or you can’t do anything right).
There is no simple answer to give you here, and dealing with a difficult boss is up there when it comes to stressors. A key first step is to answer the question about what is probable, likely, and reasonable, and what is not. If you aren’t sure, ask yourself where is the evidence to elucidate those worries that are reasonable from those that aren’t.
I like to use the example of a plane crashing. It isn’t impossible for a plane to crash, but it is highly unlikely. Possible but not probable. Taking a moment to look for the factual evidence that a plane would crash – the hard, irrefutable data – allows you to determine that your anxiety about a plane crash simply isn’t reasonable.
4. Rename any unreasonable anxiety as something more reasonable, like “discomfort.”
Words are powerful, and how we name our emotions is no different. You might not like your new boss’s negative feedback about your work, but that doesn’t mean you will never please her or be a failure in your career. Likewise, just because you don’t like being suspended in the air supported only by the laws of physics doesn’t mean the plane is in anyway unsafe, or that it will crash.
Rather than elevate your unreasonable anxiety, why not name it something less scary and more tolerable? I am uncomfortable when my boss criticizes me, but I know I can handle her feedback and can embrace it as an opportunity to grow.
Thanks to the science of emotional construction, we have more control than we may think when it comes to how we experience anxiety and other emotions. Labeling our emotions co-creates them, and delivers the control we need to cope.
5. When in doubt, rely on friends’ judgment.
Julie’s friends are helping her decipher the difference and she feels helped by their perspective. This is no accident, according to science. Seeking help from supportive people is well known to help bolster resilience, and can materially help you make the call between what is reasonable anxiety and what isn’t. Reaching out to friends is another powerful tool in taking control of your anxiety – compassionate friends help foster our best judgment and boost self-compassion so that we can ultimately lean on them less.
Knowing the difference between unreasonable and reasonable anxiety is a skill that takes cultivation and practice, but it ultimately delivers us valuable cognitive control when anxiety strikes. It is in recognizing, understanding, and taking control of our anxiety that we can put it into motion, and allow it to serve us best.
Keep up the practice, and thanks again Julie for your terrific question.
Looking for more? In my book, Hack Your Anxiety, I discuss these points in more detail in several chapters, as well as offer a toolkit at the end that walks readers through key steps. A free mini-ecourse is also available to help you understand how anxiety impacts your life and how to hack its most common challenges, as well as my biweekly newsletter.