Anxiety Shorts: The Anxiety Fire Alarm!

Anxiety keeps you alive. In this way it’s just like a fire alarm in your house. The alarm exists to detect smoke and it goes off to warn you that something is wrong. It will continue to beep at you until you do something to make it stop… so what do you do? You open a window or put out the fire!

However, problematic anxiety is like a fire alarm that is too sensitive. Just like those fire alarms by the kitchen that seem to go off even if you boil water. Mine even seems to be triggered by my warm breath, it’s ridiculous! In psychology we call this “misinterpretation of threat.” That is, your brain is acting like a fire alarm but going off in situations where on the face of it there shouldn’t be any alarm. The amygdala (the fear center of the brain) is overactivated given the situation. In this way the amygdala is the brain’s fire alarm.

As an example, let’s imagine you feel anxious at the thought of eating without washing your hands first. Is there a risk of getting sick? Yes. Is the risk high? It depends, but probably not. I say this because of how many people in the world eat not washing their hands on a daily basis without getting ill. And because I’ve eaten many times without washing my hands and I hardly ever get sick. However, if I’m feeling very anxious about it, how do I know if my brain’s fire alarm is going off because there is a metaphorical fire, or if it’s going off unnecessarily? It’s a great question! Here are three recommendations for how you can know for sure:

1. The “Survey Method”

Ask yourself, or do some observation, about what MOST people do in the situation. If most people don’t wash their hands every time they eat, or most people who don’t wash their hands still make it to work the next day, then this is probably safe!

2. The “Forced Guess Method”

Imagine that someone forced you to guess whether eating without washing hands first was safe or not (will the bad thing happen if you do it?), and if you guess wrong you die. What would you say? I’d go with the answer that I probably won’t get sick. This can be a good guide sometimes.

3. Ask Someone

This one is simple, but ask someone close to you and get some advice from their perspective.

Once you know whether your brain’s fire alarm is working correctly then you’re set to go. Either it’s working just fine, or it’s a little oversensitive. If it is going off too easily just know there are many things you can do to help. I’ll talk about those another day.

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