What is your anxiety telling you?

Megan Duffy had a thoughtful post on not inducing anxiety in others. She mentioned the specific case of reducing anxiety in others by being really clear. Instead of saying something like meet me Thursday, say why. I agree that getting asked to meet a professor or a boss is a scary thing, so the detail she suggested is great.

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For the moment, not anxious?

But today I’m thinking more about my own anxiety, and yours. Anxiety is so often a problem, we may lose sight of its positive side. So I think we should embrace our anxiety, for it is a big part of what makes us empathetic humans. I think anxiety is fundamentally a social feeling. We feel anxious if we think we will let someone else down. We could also feel anxious anticipating the reactions of unreasonable people. Miscommunication is also a rich field for anxiety.

What exactly is anxiety? What comes up on Google for anxiety is “a feeling of nervousness or unease…typically about an uncertain event or outcome.” Obviously life throws all kinds of events and circumstances at us about which we are uncertain and worry. I guess worry has to be the first cousin of anxiety. Together and in a helpful way, they can help us do what we should do, pay forward the debt to our future self, so she is as happy and fulfilled as she can be.

So the best thing to reduce anxiety is simply to do what needs to be done, so you won’t have anything to be anxious about. If you are worried about being late, be on time. If you are anxious about a test, study more. Oh, if only it were so simple. Sometimes you cannot do what you must do. Conflicting demands on your time can make you anxious. If I let anxiety run my life entirely, I would never do anything new or creative, just follow the demands others put on my time.

Sometimes anxiety gets higher and higher because not doing something makes you anxious, yet you somehow keep failing to do it. In this case, listen to your anxiety. What is it trying to tell you? Do you actually not want to do the thing you think you want to do? Or is it something else? Try to figure it out. A healthy level of anxiety we all need. Sometimes it will build up to nearly unbearable levels, simply to tell you you don’t really want that career, that project, that relationship.

In some ways, this is a very simplistic post because it is not addressing how crippling anxiety can become. But the basic message is not simple. It is that anxiety is a part of being human, so fundamental that no anxiety would be as troubling as too much anxiety. And our anxiety is telling us something. Listen and try to figure out what it is.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Managing an academic career, Mentoring, Social interactions, Undergraduates and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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