Originally published on July 5, 2022
An Intro / Recap of the Mental Health Toolkit
Somewhere along your anxiety journey, you’ll inevitably discover some helpful, stress-reducing strategies and begin constructing what I refer to as your “mental health toolkit” — a list of tactics you can pull out at any moment in hopes of mitigating the fear or dread you’re experiencing.
Lucky for us, that subject was actually the basis of my first book. In that work, I covered an array of potentially useful, toolkit-filling strategies such as breathing deeply, engaging in feel-good activities, and reciting powerful mantras.
While the construction of that mental health toolkit represents a significant step on our journeys — one that often elevates us to new mental heights — it’s not the end of our anxiety adventures. No, frustratingly enough, even the most psychologically disciplined of us often face new curveballs in life that challenge us in novel ways.
This realization or possible moment in time leads us to a couple of interesting realizations or angst-related perspectives, and it’s those things I’d like to share with you in this post.
What’s Happening Inside When We’re Anxious
When we’re in worry-filled situations or just feeling downright fearful, our fight-or-flight mechanisms — the parts of our autonomic nervous systems designed to help get us away from danger as quickly as possible — are in full swing. The funny thing about these mechanisms, however, is that the threats they detect, and thus, the things that trigger our stress responses, vary quite a bit.
For example, while predators such as lions or bears are a couple of the most commonly cited fight-or-flight-related worries, our brains aren’t simply on the lookout for hungry animals. In fact, any potential threat to our physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual well-being will fit the alarm-sounding bill.
Have you ever had your heart race before an exam and wondered why? You can thank your brain and autonomic nervous system for that; they perceived the exam as important to you or your future and, in turn, fired the proverbial cannons to help you take whatever quick action in the situation was necessary.
Of course, we could argue that there were no fight-or-flight-inspired measures to take, rendering the entire involuntary response unnecessary in the face of something as non-life-threatening as an exam, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time or blog post. What’s most important to us here is simply the idea that when our brains see matters of importance on the horizon, they also see potential risk, pain, or disappointment. And once they pick up on such possibilities, they jump into defense mode as quickly as they can.
But just why is all this background information necessary for our discussion today, and what does it have to do with the mental health toolkit we all carry around with us? That’s a great question.
Specifically, it helps enlighten us a bit. It shows us that what we’re really trying to do when leveraging our toolkits is hold off or counter the automatic, evolutionarily-programmed responses of our nervous systems. And that naturally nudges us toward internal conflict.
When Your Mental Health Toolkit Doesn’t Quite Get You All the Way There
I’ll be totally honest: as much as I’d love to state that alleviating anxiety is simply a matter of enlisting a few specific strategies at the right times, I can’t. That’s because, as you likely know already, and as we’ve hinted at in this post, managing fear is often a challenging and complicated art form.
Sure, breathing deeply and reciting positive affirmations can undoubtedly work wonders in some situations, but still, they’re not a silver bullet; every so often, we deal with a stubborn kind of fear that refuses to retreat no matter what we throw at it. This is the moment we realize we need something slightly more impactful. That thing is perspective.
That perspective is the notion that, in times of stress and fear, our evolutionarily-programmed brains are trying to hijack our conscious minds. They’re trying to break through to us and tell us there’s something scary in front of us that we need to address. However, most of the time, we don’t.
That is, save for an ill-timed encounter with a ravenous predator, criminal, or bully, it’s rare we find an opponent worth running from or battling. Yet, since our evolutionary programming is super old (anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years), our brains still see almost every threat as if it were a hungry lion and remain convinced that we must indeed fight or flee. In turn, they beg for our attention by bestowing racing hearts, sweaty palms, nervous stomachs, and general unease upon us. And that’s why perspective is of the essence here.
When we find ourselves facing non-life-threatening concerns such as exams or interviews, instead of working ourselves up further via fear-filled thinking, we must take a step back and acknowledge what it is we’re dealing with. And just what is that? A dogged, survival-based brain that hasn’t yet figured out how to adapt to modern times and threats. A relentless limbic system that attempts, at almost any cost, to overpower our executive functioning and plunge us into anxiety spirals when such a thing is rarely necessary.
Making this distinction does a few critical things for us. First, it allows us to give ourselves some credit. After all, this mental health stuff — especially the kind we’re talking about here — is really hard, and we’re all doing the best we can with the overactive brains we have. Second, it lets us see that our responsibility isn’t turning off the stubborn, survivalist parts of our brains — it’s making a commendable effort to maintain our poise despite such fickle structures.
And finally, it helps us remember that if we just make that effort — if we remain mindful and leverage our favorite tools from our collective mental health toolkit — those tricky, hijack-ready brain regions will eventually calm down.
Of course, none of that is to say that waiting for such a ramp down is ever fun. It’s just to suggest that if we hold onto our new, your-brain-is-trying-to-hijack-you perspective, we’ll get there even sooner than usual.
Now, to close things out, I’d like to leave you with one final piece of wisdom that I’ve cultivated through some of my own anxiety-related experiences. I certainly wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t wholeheartedly believe it, so, in hopes of providing a helping hand, here goes: regardless of what your brain is currently trying to tell you and how you’re presently feeling, that place of calm you’re yearning for is absolutely reachable. Just keep fighting the good fight, and you’ll get there shortly. Possibly without even realizing it. I promise.
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**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2022