Chapter 3: The Highs and Lows of Anxiety
Having taught this class now for eight years whenever I ask students what the single-most biggest challenge they experience, the answer is almost always anxiety. Its interesting to note that whether it is a student section just for those on the spectrum or for the larger population, I still always get the same answer. Indeed, being a college student in the 2020’s seems like a much more stressful thing than I ever had to deal with back in my day. There are so many complexities and ways we can be vulnerable in this modern world–social media, identity theft, privacy invasion, plus, all the challenges I did face growing up–passing your classes, working part-time, making friends, and developing a sense of self. The entire thing is incredibly challenging.
Not all anxiety is bad, in fact, to a degree, it can be good. Anxiety is often what motivates us to keep studying that extra critical hour that dramatically improves our test performance, or keeps us out of trouble when we’re driving and the roads are slippery. Anxiety is an internal warning that directs us towards safety at times. But how do we know what anxiety is rational or good versus irrational and counterproductive? And, how do we sort out what is real and what isn’t?
A good starting point as we look for an answer to these questions is to develop an awareness of what our “weak spots” are. A @&* term we use to refer to this concept is called an “Achilles heel”. If you remember your childhood mythology, Achilles was a mortal hero of the Trojan war in Greece and the son of the king Paleus and sea nymph Thetis. His mother, Thetis, wanted her son to grow up to be an ideal warrior who could never be harmed in wartime by any spear or sword. To protect Achilles, she dipped his son in the river Styx which created an invisible armor making it impossible for any weapon to harm him. Every part of Achilles’s body was protected, with the exception of his right heel, which is mother held his son from as she dipped him in the river Styx. That spot on Achilles heel thus became his weak point, and hence the term “Achilles heel” was born.
So what is your Achilles heel when it comes to anxiety? What are the things that make you the most anxious and why does it trigger you? Every person is different–for some it’s examinations in class; for some its walking through large crowds in places you’re unfamiliar with; for me personally its driving when its snowing outside. We all have our triggers and vulnerabilities, and we’re all human by having them. But by better recognizing these things we can start to do something about it.
Communication Exercise: Exploring Triggers
One of the things that helps us face our anxiety with a new perspective is to openly declare how it impacts yourself and then speak with others about theirs as well. Group exercises like this make us feel less alone, but also may at times add an element of humor to the discussion, which makes us feel a little more confident in the future. For this exercise, each student should take a sheet of paper and write down one thing that really makes them feel anxious or triggers them. Everyone should then put these sheets of paper in a bowl, and then as a group try to guess which trigger goes to who. After the owner of each item is revealed, that person should talk a little more about why it makes them feel the way they do and everyone in the group should help them think of new ways to possibly face that anxiety producing incident.
“Like walking on top of a pool of custard….”
I recently watched a TED talk from Neil Hughes, a professional speaker and comedian, that I really liked. A link to it is below. His analogy of anxiety being like walking on custard really struck with me. Take a look at it:
What did you think? He makes a lot of good points. For instance, the realization that when it comes to our anxiety, we can take Newtonian or non-Newtonian response in how we deal with it. I can certainly think of times in my life when I faced my anxieties and the result was like punching water, and others when it was like punching custard! Start to think about your life and how you face things–does this video give you any perspective?
The speaker makes another point I really like when talking about his anxiety, and that’s how we can blow things up to a much higher level than is really necessary. He talks about how he first notices his knee hurts after bumping it, and within a few minutes in his mind he is convinced the knee is now infected with cancer and will need to amputated. That over-amplification of a small aspect into something huge we call catastrophizing. We all do it at times. I remember when I had my interview for the job I presently hold (which I’ve had for over 16 years now), when I entered the room for my interview, I tripped on a pen that was left on the ground. I didn’t fall down, but did lose my balance for a second and had to grab the wall. Afterwards I was fine, but after that trip, here was the process that went through my mind..,
- I tripped on this pen…..
- The interview committee will think I’m clumsy…..
- If they think I’m clumsy, they will see me as disorganized….
- If they see me as disorganized, they will think I’m not able to do my job….
- If they don’t think I do they job, I’ll never be offered the position….
- Since I wont be offered the position, I should give up right now and just go home….
- Once I get home, I will realize I’m incapable of getting a job….
- Since I’m incapable of getting a job, I’m going to be kicked out of my home….
- If I’m kicked out of my home I will be homeless and alone….
- If I’m homeless and alone, I will have the most horrible life any human being has ever had or ever will have…
- &, etc.
And so on. As I type this, I kind of laugh because obviously the tripping meant nothing to the committee and I still got the job, but I distinctly remember having this exact thought process for days after my interview. When I type it up like this, its kind of humorous how we can blow things up though!
Communication Exercise: Your Turn
Form small groups of 4 or 5 students and engage in the same exercise. Someone come up with a common mistake we all can make, and then blow things up bullet by bullet like above to an absolute worst case scenario. Blow it up to the most extreme worst scenario you can think of–maybe ultimately the universe will collapse in on itself! Take it to a ridiculous extreme. Doing so can be fun, but also helps us put things into perspective.
Email Question #3:
So today in class we talked about anxiety and trying to do something different in managing our anxieties than we normally do in the hopes of having a better response. What is something that stresses you out or causes you anxiety? What do you usually do about it, and what could you try to do differently instead?
See you next week!
Positive and Negative Coping Mechanisms for Anxiety
Instructions: Answer each of the questions below. Then, show it someone who knows you well. Ask them to add any others you may have missed. Then, answer the questions on the back.
- Positive Coping Mechanisms for my Anxiety:
- Negative Coping Mechanisms for my Anxiety:
Now show your answers to someone who knows you well and ask them to add:
- “I would also add for you (or not) for positive coping”
- “I would also add for you (or not) for negative coping”
Now, Answer These Questions:
1) Did your responses match the person you worked with? Were there any that surprised you or you hadn’t thought of?
2) How would you focus on increasing your positive coping styles and decrease those negative ones?
3) The American Psychological Association estimates roughly 18% of the US population struggles with anxiety. Why do you think this is?