Are you feeling anxious? Do you think you can’t reach out to anyone for help? This blog covers everything you should know about turning your worry into a superpower.
Many of us have been on the receiving end of that encouraging feedback, which is a splendid combination of insulting and useless. Calm down? Thanks, we hadn’t thought of that. Considering that anxiety can be painful at times, chances are if we could simply “calm down” we probably would have done so already. Now we have two problems — we are intensely anxious and we realize we have a not-so-helpful friend.
As it turns out, imploring us to calm down is not only unhelpful but also exactly the wrong advice.
Telling Us To Calm Down Does Several Counterproductive Things.
First, it is incredibly invalidating and does not in any way recognize that there might be something that we are worrying about for good reason. It, therefore, does not give credibility to the fact that anxiety is designed specifically to warn us of impending danger.
So, whereas feeling heard and understood might actually soothe and reassure us, being told to “calm down” will cause us to try and suppress and avoid our feelings, making our anxiety and worry worse, not better.
Second, it follows that failing to identify the problem that is causing our anxiety will limit our opportunity to identify any effective strategies to address the problem. Suppose our inability to calm down is from an imminent threat that the other person cannot identify? As an example, from an evolutionary perspective, it would certainly not be adaptive to tell us to calm down as we see a hungry lion approach.
And while the frequency of lion attacks in today’s day and age is perhaps less common, our anxiety and worry are usually based on a perceived threat that may feel and actually be very real to us. So, instead of helping us develop effective problem-solving strategies to deal with the cause of our anxiety, telling us to calm down offers no real strategies or solutions.
Next, when we are told simply to “calm down,” it avoids addressing our real problem, and creates another real problem – it damages rather than strengthens our social support network.
Specifically, because being told to calm down is such an invalidating and ineffective strategy, it tends to undermine our relationship with that person. Thus, it erodes our social support, which we need in difficult situations. One less person to count on means we are that much less likely to get the help we need when we need it, thus increasing our overall anxiety.
Finally, telling us to calm down is a more global condemnation of who we are and how we function.
It does not recognize that anxiety has many adaptive components. Our senses are heightened, we are energized to act, and our worry is the beginning of our minds working on the problems we perceive. Similarly, being told to globally calm down does not do justice to the fact that some people, in general, tend to be deeper, more active, and more intense thinkers. Those same people may also be creative, innovative and effective at making changes in their life.
In these cases, worry and anxiety is simply one expression of that more general activation. Thus, when we are told to calm down, it often feels like we are being told to shut our brains down in general, throwing out the good with the bad.
I have been thinking a lot about this issue since talking with Joe Mulherin, aka the musician nothing, nowhere. During our discussion, Mulherin explained how his active mind was useful for writing songs but often caused stress when he contemplated deeper existential questions. Based in part on that discussion, it became clear that rather than telling others to “calm down,” we must flip the script and actually embrace anxiety – and particularly our worry – as a superpower that will enhance our problem-solving ability.