Managing Anxiety: Irrational Fears

We have already defined anxiety as anticipation of future threat(s). Anxiety often serves a good purpose, then. The worry you have before taking a test, or giving a big presentation at work, is helpful because it makes you prepare. Our ancestors benefited from anxiety because it helped them confront future obstacles, like the coming of winter.

Anxiety becomes unhelpful in two ways. First, when it is out of proportion. Secondly, when it misinterprets a threat. In both cases, we would call the anxiety irrational.

Let’s take the first example. If you are so worried about your presentation at work that you cannot think, or if you are so stressed about your test that you cannot study, then your anxiety isn’t doing you any favors. It has gone from something that is supposed to help to something that hinders you.

In the second example, we sometimes perceive a threat when there really isn’t one. We might get worked up over a test that will be easy, or a presentation that is no big deal. Anxiety does not always correspond to what the thing “actually” is—it corresponds to how you perceive it.

In both cases, it is important to ask yourself whether 1) your anxiety is helping you and 2) your anxiety is warranted. Good strategies for this include asking or observing how other people would respond to your same situation. Or, pretend your friend has the anxiety and is coming to you for help—what would you say to him/her? This helps ground your anxiety in a more realistic context.

Sometimes, the knowledge that you are over-reacting is not helpful in calming yourself down. For those instances, see the article on using your body.

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