Everything Means Nothing
Nothing Causes Anxiety
Did that title get you? Good. It was supposed to. I learned in my high school speech class that you have to have an attention grabber. Subsequently, a girl got up in front of class and yelled “prostitution!” Then she proceeded to talk about how to bake a cake.
I don’t think that is what the teacher meant when she suggested we get peoples attention. Nevertheless, it worked.
The above commentary has nothing to do with the rest of the article. I just thought it was a funny anecdote that I could use to illustrate that attention grabbers are meant to evoke an emotional reaction.
Okay, enough small talk. Let’s get to the point…….
One Situation, Two Responses
I used to work as a Wellness Counselor at a high school. One day, sometime around final exams I had a student come into my office experiencing heightened levels of anxiety.
After I was able to practice some breathing and grounding techniques so that her body was in a state of calm, I mentioned that I noticed she was having some pretty big emotions and invited her to share.
The student told me that as she walked in to take her final exam, she felt a rush of heat rise from her chest up to her head. She suddenly found herself unable to breathe. As the teacher was about to pass out the test, she raised her hand to leave and made her way to my office.
As I spoke to the student, I found out that she was putting pressure on herself to get an A in the class. Looking at the exam triggered her fear that this might not happen. When I asked her what it would mean to her if she got a B, she said that it would mean that she is a failure….as a person.
And there you have it.
It’s not the event of taking a final exam that means anything.
Other students who were sitting for the same exam did not assign their future success to its outcome. They might not be happy if they got less than an A, but they saw the final exam as just another exam, whereas my student saw it as something way bigger.
So here’s the take-away:
Anxiety is fueled by fear
Fear is fueled by our association with an event
The event becomes a trigger for anxiety because of the meaning we place on it
People can experience the same event and have completely different reactions. This is because those who struggle with anxiety are assigning meaning to the event that induces fear, which then triggers anxiety.
Everything Means Nothing (until it does)
Trying to understand anxiety without searching for the meaning behind it is like trying to understand why socks get lost in dryers.
All it does is cause more confusion until you give up and buy an entire new wardrobe.
There are some things we do know about anxiety:
It continues to be the primary mental health problem facing children and adolescents
It can be misdiagnosed as ADHD, and can also look like depression
1 in 5 children will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder
Girls are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and boys more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD
Overestimation of threat + underestimation of ability to cope = anxiety response
Strategies such as deep breathing, grounding and other mindfulness activities are shown to do wonders for the treatment of anxiety.
This tells us that once anxiety comes to the party, we have the tools to ask it to leave.
If we stop there then all we are doing is putting out fires. A better way to treat anxiety is to understand the meaning that is being attached to the event that is resulting in an anxious response.
Let’s go back to the student…
If Suzie comes to my office feeling anxious, I can pull out my toolbox and calm her down enough to get her back to class.
But to really hep Suzie with her anxiety, we need to ask Suzie more questions. Questions such as:
When did you start feeling anxious?
What does the test mean to you?
What would it say about you if you didn’t get the grade you wanted on the test?
These questions help us to understand what the test means to Suzie, and that will better help us to understand the narrative she is creating about the expectations she has for herself.
This in turn will help us to challenge those self-defeating beliefs so that the next time Suzie sits for an exam she has not attached her entire lifetime success to getting a good grade on one exam.
Moral of the Story
The next time you or someone you know, says that they are anxious, ask more questions.
The cause and the solution to anxiety lies in the meaning.