Too Much of a Good Thing
Worry, stress, and anxiety all serve a needed function in our lives, and they have for a very long time. In fact, having an alert, vigilant brain attuned to possible hazards and threats has helped our species stay alive, develop community, and evolve!
The problem comes when any one of those functions becomes stuck. When this happens, relatively minor things set off our fight/flight/freeze reaction.
However, those functions aren’t technically stuck. Our brains just become hyper-attentive to everyday environmental stressors, making us more aware of those feelings and making them feel like they are on 24/7.
To top things off, whether or not the threats we perceive are real or imagined, our body’s emergency response and cortisol dump is the same.
This double whammy disrupts our sense of agency, meaning the level to which we believe we can take action, be effective, and influence our own life. When we have a low sense of agency, we have a hard time feeling confident that we can make the changes in our lives that we want or need. And again, we feel stuck.
Well now, it’s time to bring in some good news.
Dr. Seligman has shown that we can learn to strengthen our sense of personal agency and even learn how to be more optimistic with our life situations.
Not unicorns and rainbows optimistic, more like The Little Engine That Could optimistic. And since both personal agency and optimism are extremely helpful in transforming our anxiety, I’d say that is good news indeed!
Dr. Seligman found that optimism largely comes down to how we “explain” the events in our lives.
As you read the following terms, try and figure out how you tend to “explain” factors in your life in general and toward anxiety in particular.
Permanence refers to the belief that negative events, situations, and/or their causes are permanent, even when evidence, logic, and past experience indicate that they are probably temporary (“I’m always going to be worried before work” vs. “I’m worried right now before work, but there have been mornings that I wasn’t worried.”).
Pervasiveness refers to the tendency to generalize so that negative features of one situation are thought to extend to others as well (“I lost that contract I really wanted” vs. “I’m stupid.” Or “I wasn’t invited to lunch today” vs. “Nobody likes me.”).
Personalization refers to whether one tends to attribute negative events or situations to one’s own flaws or to outside circumstances or other people. While it is important to take responsibility for one’s mistakes, it’s important to be aware of whether one’s self-blame over a particular event or situation is realistic and appropriate (“I’m anxious because I’m not good enough” vs. “I’m anxious because I’m watching too much bad news on TV.”).
In order to restore your confidence, optimism, and sense of personal agency with your anxiety and worry, work toward cultivating a less permanent and pervasive explanatory style.
Oh, and try not to take everything so personally too.
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