Not all anxiety is abnormal or a bad thing. Everyone has experienced some worry and apprehension about something in their life. Actually, as Matthew Stanford, Ph.D. notes, anxiety is part of our humanity, a God-designed normal cognitive and physiological response that calls us to action. Situational anxiety, per Loren Soeiro, Ph.D., is designed to detect and protect us from potential danger through our fight-or-flight response. That is, to avoid a potentially life-threatening accident, any serious threat to our body, or entering into an unsafe environment or circumstance. Per Matthew Stanford, Ph.D., situational anxiety can also provide us with physiological energy to stay on task, such as preparing for a work-related speech or presentation, when studying for an exam, or preparing for a competitive sporting event. Thus, at normal levels, anxiety enhances and spurs us to action. Anxiety is also a strong motivator for improving our performance levels, both academically and athletically, with “a fair amount of anxiety,” per Dr. Soeiro, leading student-athletes to perform better in their events and on exams. Additionally, those who have struggled with anxiety are apt to respond to the anxiety noticed in others with empathy and gentleness, possessing a sensible awareness and capacity for another’s perspective in social and occupational situations. Within an occupational setting as it pertains to leadership, per Katharina Star, Ph.D., individuals with anxiety are often more cautious thinkers, careful decision-makers, and great problem solvers. So, a healthy level of anxiety can be beneficial in social, educational, occupational, and other contexts.
However, anxiety can also be chronic and debilitative, as in the case of those suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), where anxiety and worry are disproportionate to the situation or event. That is, the outcome or nature of the situation or encounter is amplified to a distorted level. Furthermore, people with an anxiety disorder tend to underestimate their internal and external resources and their ability to cope. As outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), in addition to excessive worry, anxiety is associated with three or more physical symptoms, such as fatigue, muscle tension, irritability, feeling keyed up or on edge, and disturbed sleep. Per an article from PsychCentral, those suffering from chronic anxiety, typically tend to experience intrusive “what if” thoughts that are hard to turn off and are constant distractions and/or interfere with productivity and relationships. These intrusive thoughts are centered around a number of different situations and events, such as financial concerns, relationships, health concerns, or the future, or worrying about worrying too much.
In addition to “what if” thoughts, thinking that involves continual, persistent, and negative inaccurate thoughts can feed anxiety. Problematic, irrational thinking can lead to cognitive distortions, which fall into the general categories of categorical thinking, linear thinking, and negative filtering. Cognitive distortions are rooted in core beliefs which typically center around feeling worthless, hopeless, helpless, or unlovable and are not easily recognizable like surface-level automatic thoughts, as noted by Mark McMinn, Ph.D., and, thus, need assistance through counseling.
So, what can be done about these dysfunctional thoughts and core beliefs? First, there is hope! We do have control over our thinking and what we choose to think about. Through healthy, flexible thinking, we can control our emotions. In therapy, clients are taught to be personal detectives, finding their automatic, inflexible thoughts and replacing them with flexible, rational thoughts alongside biblical truths. The ultimate goal is to find peace, hope, and joy despite their situation. Romans 12:2 tells us “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and focusing on things that are “right, true, pure, and admirable” and “anything that is excellent or praiseworthy as stated by Paul in Philippians 4:8. So, we can take hope, knowing that through counseling and biblical truths, we can spur ourselves to action and not continually let out thoughts take us down the same wrong path—a path of anger, bitterness, insecurity, offense, jealously, or doubt.