The anxiety paradox

There’s a lot you should be doing right now, isn’t there? Why are you on Facebook and reading blogs when you have work to do, that thesis to write, the lawn needs mowing, dishes doing, the house is a mess, that exam isn’t going to study for itself,that deadline is looming..?

The dumb thing about stress/anxiety is it’s often counterproductive when it’s supposed to be the opposite. Isn’t your body filling up with all the fight-or-flight chemicals to make you get off your butt and do something? When I was trying to finish my Masters I suffered from so much anxiety that I couldn’t make any progress and my lack of progress gave me more anxiety. It was a vicious self-defeating cycle. Now that I’m onto the PhD I’m trying to break the pattern and not get too wound up – but still get stuff done. It’s a delicate balancing act.

There’s this graph they use in sports psychology to illustrate the way stress helps performance, up to a point, then it drops off sharply. They call it arousal, not stress, but the connotations or arousal are somewhat more sexual than required for this type of thing.

So anyway, why is the body making more stress than is useful? (see, arousal would be awkward here). Well, our bodies didn’t evolve during times of plentiful desk jobs or academic study. We are animals, remember? Stress means: get the fuck out. Escape the harsh climate, defend from predators, run from fire, then relax. Ahh… Aren’t you glad we ran from that fire? Now let’s find some food and have a nap in the sun.

These days the stress is never ending. There is always more to do: bills, chores, projects, deadlines… Deadline is a particularly morbid word, isn’t it? Like mortgage (to the death), we accept these things as a normal part of life. We get used to endless mounting stresses even though, physiologically, our bodies suffer.

Cortisol is a nasty thing when it gets out of control. This stress hormone puts pressure on bodily systems and exacerbates disease. It also makes it even harder to make progress because we are biologically wired to avoid cortisol inducing things – enter the plethora of avoidance strategies you have amassed in your life.

One way of tackling this silly state of affairs is to try to reduce cortisol on a physical level. Here are some suggestions:

1. Drink green tea. Apparently green tea and a bunch of other herbs and food can help.

2. The three cures for everything: Sunshine, exercise and good food seem to be the cure for almost everything.

3. Do relaxing things: I suppose it’s worth investing time in activities that are actually relaxing – go to the hot pools or indulge in scenic walks rather than playing PlayStation or aimless Facebooking.

4. Write a list of easily accomplishable things then tick them off and feel the rewards of accomplishment: your anxiety shrinking.

5. Remember to breathe.  Breathing is important, breathe slowly and deeply – do yogic breathing exercises, meditate, all of that important stuff that people tend to over-look because they’re too busy being busy,

6. Adjust your posture. Posture is important too, if you are hunched over and tense you aren’t doing yourself any favors on the anxiety front. Shoulders back and down. See, isn’t that better? Feel your chest opening up. Give yourself space.


One thought on “The anxiety paradox

  1. As the graph shows, some stress is adaptive – “good” stress. You perform better because you know enough to study for your final exam, you know you’re competing in the state finals and there’s a championship on the line, etc. But when we hit “maladaptive” stress, we’re paralyzed and can’t function with anxiety attacks, etc. You’re right – the trick is in both achieving and maintaining the balance.

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