Originally published on July 19, 2020
What Are the Ways Anxiety Tricks Us?
There are some events in life that are just plain scary, especially for us anxious folks. Performance reviews, sales presentations, big exams — all of these things fall into that category. I’m sure you can add a few examples of your own as well.
What these sorts of situations have in common is that they keep hidden from us some important outcome. That is, at least until the event in question comes to pass. Here’s what I mean by that.
For the performance review, we don’t know, and likely won’t find out, what our boss has to say about our work until we meet with him or her. With the presentation, we don’t know if we’ll win the client over or drive them to sign with a competitor until we give our pitch. And for the exam, we really can’t know if we’ll pass or fail until we sit down and take that test.
The uncertainty of such situations, alone, is enough to make any of us fearful. And while we could, of course, actually perform well during these high-pressure situations, it’s often hard for us to see or believe in such outcomes; our brains’ oft-overactive fear circuits tend to push us to focus on negative potentials and protect the downside.
This is the first way that anxiety tricks us.
Anxiety’s Remaining Tricks
Though I’m sure anxiety tricks us in more ways than just three, that’s the number I’m going to focus on here. At least according to my own experiences, as well as some of the folks I coach, it seems there are three ploys that anxiety uses most often. And, since we’ve already covered the first one, let’s jump right into number two.
Once we’ve already been distracted by anxiety and pushed to focus on the negative, the next thing fear often does is try to make us feel as though the situation in front of us is the only important thing in our lives.
I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this before. Think back to similar high-pressure situations in the past — job interviews, project deadlines, social gatherings, or anything similar.
Didn’t so many of those high-stakes events feel like life-or-death leading up to them? And, didn’t so many of those same things reveal themselves as anything but, once they were over? This is anxiety’s second clever scheme.
Now, explaining this trick is not to say that none of these intense situations aren’t a big deal. Far from it, in fact. It’s just to say that fear often pressures us into feeling like these events are much bigger deals than they truly are. Yes, many of them are important to us in one way or another. But it’s rare that we face a true life-or-death situation, and anxiety often prevents us from seeing that.
That brings us to trick number three. Anxiety’s third ruse is that it often drives us so far into the fear circuits of our brains that we lose sight of what we’re actually dealing with and put ourselves in anxious states disproportionate to what the situation in front of us actually warrants.
This is the most dangerous trick of all, and it’s exactly why some folks often say to us, “I don’t understand. What are you so worried about?” No, it’s not just the situation we’re facing, at face value. It’s also the vortex of fear we’ve built around the situation as well as all the negative thoughts that have flooded our minds since we put ourselves in such a negative state.
Getting Back to Groundedness
So, once we’ve fallen prey to anxiety’s wicked ways, what exactly can we do to get back to groundedness? That’s a good question, and it’s what I’ll cover as we round out our discussion on fear’s cunning tactics.
My recommendation for when you find yourself in these sorts of situations is to create and carry with you a list of all the things you find most important in life. It doesn’t need to be a paper list — even a digital note on your phone will do. Just make sure it’s accessible wherever you go.
Once you’ve finalized your list, and each time you face a similar, stressful scenario in the future, think about the situation in front of you and how it compares to the most important things in your life.
Ask yourself perspective-based questions such as, “Is this performance review really a bigger deal to me than my family? Will not winning this client’s business really feel the same to me as losing my best friend would? If I bomb this exam, is my life truly over?”
The reason why such a strategy can help ground us again is that it gets us out of our heads temporarily by taking our focus off of that situation on the horizon. You know, the very one driving us crazy. In addition, it also serves to reframe our perspective on how serious or dangerous that same situation is.
And that’s a really helpful thing, since once we get our brains to see, yet again, that what we’re facing really isn’t as big a deal as we’re making it out to be, we can also get them to say, “Oh, you don’t need the full artillery for this one? Cool, I’ll take this fight-or-flight thing out of overdrive then.”
Now, of course, despite my optimism, not every single thing we face in life will fall into this “tricked by anxiety” category. Every once in a while, we’ll encounter a scenario that truly is a big deal — our dog goes missing, someone steals our identity, or a loved one ends up in the hospital.
My goal here is not to make light of those sorts of situations. Far from it. All I’m trying to do here is help build your poise in stressful scenarios — to instill the habit of looking critically at what’s in front of you and shifting your perspective, should said situation warrant such a thing.
For no matter what it is that you face, poise and critical thinking will always prove useful and grounding. Sure, they might not always resolve the very thing that you’re up against, but they will help mitigate the fear you feel right now. And, for anxiety-provoking situations, mitigating those difficult feelings in advance of them is more than half the battle.
Thanks for reading! Curious to learn more?
Then grab a copy of my book, Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of the topics I discuss in my blog posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear. Check it out if you’re looking to level-up your anxiety-alleviating skills.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my previous articles on managing anxiety:
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