February 12, 2020


Anxiety is a big problem in the world today. Here in Australia, it’s estimated that 2 million people (over 8% of the population) suffer from it. But if we see anxiety as one big problem, we might be tempted to look for one big solution – the latest medication, or a new form of psychotherapy. If we really want to feel less anxiety in our lives (and who doesn’t?), shouldn’t we pay more attention to the little things?

Imagine someone cuts you off whilst driving. You pound your hands against the steering wheel and shout. Your body releases stress hormones, including cortisol, which speed up your heart rate and make it difficult to concentrate. You brood about the carelessness of the person in the car in front of you. By the time you reach your destination, you’re all out of sorts. It seems like only a matter of time until something else goes wrong.

Now imagine a different reaction. You tap the brakes, take a deep breath and allow that careless driver to go on their way. There is little if any chemical reaction in your body. Your thoughts return to the problem you were working on, or the shape of the clouds in sky. By the time you reach your destination, you might even feel more relaxed than when you started.

The first scenario illustrates how anxiety begets anxiety. The second scenario illustrates how a small choice can stem the tide of anxiety. Breathing might be an important part of that. Research shows that deep breathing is one of the best ways to relieve and prevent anxiety because it moves the body away from its “fight or flight” response and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation.

But it isn’t just our reactions to life’s challenges that make a difference to our anxiety levels. Being proactive, especially in the lives of the people we care about, can play an active role in keeping anxiety away.

Selfish vs. Compassionate Goals

A 2017 study in Journal of Clinical Psychology looked at the way different types of goals can affect a person’s level of anxiety. The study differentiated between self-image goals (which are related to “obtaining status or approval and avoiding vulnerability during social interactions”) and compassionate goals (which involve “striving to help others and avoiding selfish behaviour”).

The data showed that people who focused more on self-image goals experienced higher levels of anxiety and depression in daily life. By contrast, people who focused more on compassionate goals had lower levels of anxiety and depression. This included making a positive difference in someone else’s life, being supportive of others, and avoiding self-centred behaviour.

A new approach to anxiety

Anxiety itself is not a bad thing, of course – it’s an evolutionary trait designed to help us respond properly to dangerous situations. But so much of the anxiety we suffer today is related to internal mechanics, not to external dangers. Day by day, we lower the threshold for negative emotions and allow little things get to us. When we try to understand why we feel anxious, we strain our eyes trying to see the whole forest, instead of taking it one tree at a time.

Fortunately, there are tons of small choices we can make in order to curb anxiety and live happier lives. Turning our attention to someone else, and taking concrete action to uplift and support them, is one of the most powerful. After all, a big part of anxiety is feeling disconnected. When we give or receive valuable support, we feel intrinsically connected – and it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

What has someone done for you during an anxious time?