The high achiever’s relationship with worry and anxiety is a complicated one. Many high achievers identify as “worriers,” but credit their worrying as partly responsible for their success because “it keeps [them] on [their] toes” and “helps problem solve” – They treat worry a badge of honor or a battle wound to be proud of. The irony is that the experience of “worry” is more likely to impede productivity and analytical thinking than it is to support it, impeding professional success.
Worry is also a significant symptom present in every type of anxiety. Generally speaking, these disorders all include a combination of 1) worry; and 2) worry significantly impacting one’s behavior. Diagnoses that fall within this category include: Generalized Anxiety; 2) Social Anxiety; 3) Phobias; 4) Separation Anxiety; and 5) Panic Disorder. OCD, Acute Stress Disorder, and PTSD have recently been re-categorized outside of the Anxiety umbrella, but are still considered very closely related to the other anxiety disorders.
Our Brains and Anxiety
Anxiety is another word for a stress response. Humans are actually wired for anxiety as a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, in our modern world, this brain system which developed to help us survive out in the wild, can often end up hurting us. What would otherwise be a helpful very temporary experience to aide us in surviving a predator’s attack ends up becoming a repetitive harmful experience that our brains have learned to rely on as a go-to coping mechanism for life’s stressors. For many of us, this reliance results in much suffering and interferes with how we want to live (and, dare I say, maybe even enjoy) our lives.
The very capability that allows our brains to learn to rely on anxiety as a go-to coping mechanism for life’s stressors is what also allows it to break those harmful ways. We have the ability to change the structure and function of our brains. Every time we learn or experience something new, our brains lay down a new neuropathway. While our brains may be inherently wired for an anxiety/stress response as a survival mechanism, the thoughts and behaviors we engaged in as a result of that very brief initial reaction to a stressor are learned, resulting in neuropathways. Those thoughts and behaviors are what cause the problematic suffering and symptoms of anxiety. We can create alternative neuropathways in our brains so that we have other ways to respond. The more our brains use a neuropathway, the more likely they are to rely on it as a go-to for responses to the world and the less likely they are to rely on “old” neuropathways. With practice, the new neuropathways become the go-to responses and the “old” ones become weaker and, in some of us, disappear. We can change the structure and function of our brains.