The Anxiety Spectrum

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The Anxiety Spectrum


Anxiety is generally perceived as a wholly negative emotion. Something to be overcome or ignored; a weakness of character and a problem. Anxiety can be desperately debilitating and severely impact the quality of life. Too much anxiety is clearly a bad thing. But is the inverse true? Is having little or no anxiety a good thing? Does being free of all anxiety mean we can become the confident successful person we aspire to? Perhaps not. I would argue that anxiety can have positive value and is necessary for leading a healthy and normal life. A total absence of anxious thoughts and feelings could be as problematic as having too many!

Anxiety is the uncomfortable feeling we experience when our cognitive processes question our actions, decisions and competencies in relation to a situation we are facing or imagining. These doubts are there to try and keep us safe from danger. Anxiety can therefore be seen as a safety check when we encounter physical, social, emotional or economic risks. It is there to help us be certain of our choices before we make them. Our anxieties thus have a useful purpose and it is really important to understand this.

If we accept a positive role for anxieties within the context of risk management then it follows that having no anxiety must be a bad thing. Of course becoming paralyzed by our anxieties is clearly a bad thing. Within these two extremes there must be an optimum middle. A place where we acknowledge our anxious thoughts, think carefully before making decisions and then bravely move forward with our considered choice of action. This is the anxiety spectrum.

Using the term spectrum helps to explain the wide range of ways we can react to these unpleasant thoughts and feelings. These differences are not just between different individuals but vary within us all depending on the context, our past experiences and our current mood. In our management of our anxieties it is necessary to recognise the normality of these experiences. Thinking that we are alone in this anxiety or we are somehow different to others is most likely wrong. We are all too aware of our own anxiety but generally unable to see the same anxiety in others. Just as we often try to hide our anxieties and 'put on a brave face' so do others. In these situations we are in error to believe that everyone else is coping better than us. Some will be coping better but there will always be others who are feeling the same as us.

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The Anxiety Spectrum

Too Much

When we are unable to manage our anxieties and they become debilitating we tend to exhibit the following behaviours:

Avoiding all risk
Unwilling to try new experiences
Fearful of making mistakes
Making excuses to avoid social events
Dwelling on things that go wrong

Too Little

If we totally ignore our anxieties (or we lack them) then we may present as:

Acting without thinking
Making the same mistakes over and over
Being over confident
Often is oblivious to other people's feelings
Taking dangerous or inappropriate risks

About Right

The following behaviours are characteristics of a person with a normal and healthy experience of anxiety:

Feeling nervous before new experiences
Sometimes feeling shy
Feeling uncomfortable over mistakes
Needing to recheck things
Thinking carefully before making decisions or taking risks

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The Anxiety Spectrum Visual Resource

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You may also be interested in the following pages:

Anxiety Management

Feeling Anxious Social Stories

Calming Strategies

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