If you’re struggling with confidence and anxiety, then feeling self-confident and safe in the world around you is hard. Your brain is stuck in a stress-response mode, making you feel overwhelmed and uneasy. Anxiety isn’t a choice; it’s due to your biology, your environment and past experiences in the world that trigger doubt or fear. The more we know about the science of anxiety or anxiety disorders and what contributes to our level of distress, the more confident we become in our ability to overcome it.
The Struggle with Anxiety and Confidence
I’ve struggled with anxiety and confidence issues for as long as I can remember. The most validating thing for me, and many of the clients I work with, is threefold: understanding what anxiety is, how to communicate this to our support systems, and developing coping skills to reduce the intensity of fear-based thoughts.
Anxiety makes your brain stuck in a state of high alert. Therefore, you are more likely to be sensitive to your environment and less confident in your abilities to manage what life throws your way. That means if a friend hurt your feelings, if you didn’t get invited to something or if you saw a scary report on the news, your brain is more likely to fixate or feel overwhelmed by it. This makes it hard to trust yourself and can make you fearful of the future. This is why anxiety impacts confidence–it makes you question your abilities and fixates on the things you can’t control.
The Science of Anxiety: A Brief Overview
Anxiety is helpful when it’s turning on and off at the right times. For thousands of years our brains have biologically reinforced to high alert in situations that could be threatening, that is when anxiety is helpful. Sure, saber-tooth tigers aren’t roaming our neighborhoods anymore, but when we’ve experienced something scary, sad or confusing sometimes this same stress-response is triggered, and our brains don’t know how to turn it off.
When we start to feel excessive fear or potential threats your fight-or-flight response is triggered and your brain floods with norepinephrine and cortisol. They are helpful in the short-term by increasing adrenaline, which makes your body ready to save your life, but if it stays triggered after the experience is over, your mind becomes overwhelmed and eventually, things feel out of control.
Decrease Anxiety and Improve Confidence with Communication
There are a lot of people don’t understand how anxiety feels or “why” us worried folks can’t just “snap out of it.” The people in your life may not understand how anxiety works which makes you feel more insecure and less confident when you are having a rough day. Remember that a lot of support is out there and sometimes our family and friends aren’t capable of understanding. Try to explain anxiety calmly or with research but also find a way to relate to them.
One day while watching my boyfriend’s beloved hockey team in double overtime I noticed his anxiety about the situation. “I’m so nervous I can’t handle it,” he said as he was pacing back and forth furiously.
Now he’s generally a calm person, but when his favorite team was about to go into their third overtime, I realized that this is the first I’ve seen him appear anxious. “The way you feel right now is how I feel most days. It sucks right?”
He looked at me with surprise and sat down, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea. This is a terrible feeling.”
When I was a teenager, my friends would tell me to calm down or chill out. Well, they didn’t understand that their suggestions were both invalidating and impossible. When I opened up to a friend who struggled with anxiety too I felt so validated and supported. Find the right people to talk about your worries with. You can’t change people but you can be more mindful of the people in your life who get it.
Coping Ahead to Increase Confidence and Reduce Anxiety
When we identify the situations that trigger a stress response we can cope ahead to combat them. I had a client who couldn’t stand being in traffic. Her heart would beat so fast, she’d be covered in sweat at the thought of getting in her car. She reported that when she was stuck in gridlock, she felt all the physiological symptoms of anxiety plus she would worry about accidents, which turned into worrying about her family members in other cities and made the rest of her day miserable.
We couldn’t get rid of all the traffic but we were able to find different times to drive to work, different routes and skills to use in the moment so she could attempt to combat the intense intrusive thoughts that were triggered by the traffic. Think about your triggers and a few simple things that could make them more tolerable. If that’s too challenging, enlist a trusted friend or therapist to help you come up with ways to reduce your anxiety in these situations.
You may not be able to get rid of your anxiety but by trying to understand how anxiety works and how it impacts your life, you can feel more confident managing it.