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Anxiety: The Overactive Alarm Clock

November 17, 2019 George Abitante

How is anxiety like an alarm clock? They're actually very similar, but one is more active than you need.

This week I had what I expect is a common experience with my alarm clock. I was woken up early because I'd accidentally left an earlier alarm scheduled even though I wanted to sleep later that day. If you've experienced this too, I'm guessing you know how awful that feels. But as I thought more about it, I realized that the similarities between anxiety and alarm clocks are actually really helpful for clarifying how we think about and understand anxiety. If you think this sounds strange, don't worry -- I do too. But the more I've thought about it, the more clearly anxiety and alarm clocks seemed to align. Let's talk about it. 

How Anxiety and Alarm Clocks Are Similar

We Need Reminders

First and foremost, both anxiety and your alarm clock serve a valuable purpose -- they're trying to help you avoid a negative outcome. In the case of alarm clocks, this is almost always making sure you don't miss an important event, whereas anxiety is often on the lookout for a multitude of different potential threats. Like the alarm clock, anxiety is doing it's best to make sure you avoid something negative, but it often does so in a way that makes it harder for you to sleep and relax.

Anxiety can feel like an alarm clock that is set to go off every five minutes for hours preceding something important you have to do. It wants to make sure you don't forget about it, and it ends up trying to help by reminding you (too often, in many cases) that there is something important you need to do. 

Just Not Too Many

This leads into the second, equally important point: like an alarm clock that goes off every five minutes, our goal with anxiety is not to shut it off completely, but to reprogram it so it goes off the right number of times. This is a challenging perspective to engage with sometimes, but I think this analogy with the alarm clock really helps -- if you turn off an alarm clock completely, then you're very likely going to miss whatever important event you have planned. Similarly, our goal with anxiety should never be to eliminate it entirely because it serves a valuable function.

The goal with both alarm clocks and anxiety is to program them so they give enough reminders that we remember to do what we need to, but not so many that they cause us distress. Figuring out exactly how many reminders you need can be tough, but that's a natural part of the process and a good thing to think about. I think the only mistake would be to think you don't need those reminders at all. 

Understanding Your Anxiety Alarm Clock

I hope that this idea of anxiety as an alarm clock (silly as it may sound) has helped you think a little bit differently about your anxiety, and I wanted to bring this analogy further into the process of monitoring your anxiety. With an alarm clock, you decide when you need to set alarms based on what you need to do each day. If you find that an alarm at 6:00 A.M. is too late to get to work by 6:30 A.M., then you adjust so that the alarm is earlier. Conversely, if you aren't getting enough sleep and get to work too early, then you might adjust so your alarm sounds later.

The same process is true of anxiety, it's just a bit more difficult to evaluate when we want an alarm and how to change it. This can be a slow process, but just like changing your alarm clock, anxiety requires you to be aware of the different triggers that cause your anxiety to sound the alarm. Understanding when those triggers happen is crucial for identifying new ways to respond to them. Similarly, getting a sense of how often you actually need those reminders to happen can take time, but ultimately provides valuable context for understanding exactly what your goal is with your anxiety. 

It is important to think of anxiety not just as a negative, frightening challenge, but instead as a valuable tool that is necessary but sometimes needs to be reset. Embracing this perspective can take away some of the fear associated with anxiety and help you reengage and identify strategies for optimizing your anxiety.

I hope you found this analogy between anxiety and alarm clocks helpful. Please share your thoughts in the comments below. 

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, November 17). Anxiety: The Overactive Alarm Clock, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, December 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/11/anxiety-the-overactive-alarm-clock



Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt University. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

Lizanne Corbit
November, 19 2019 at 5:56 pm

I think this is an excellent analogy! The points about anxiety trying to keep us from something negative, as well as, not wanting to shut it off entirely but figure out how many times and when it is helpful for that alarm to come through. Shifting our perspective is such a monumental tool for so many things, and it's true of anxiety as well. If we can take a moment to pause and say what is causing me to feel anxious right now, where is this stemming from, and what is it trying to alert me to? Rather than, oh no I feel anxious again, what is wrong with me?! We can mke a huge change in positive self behaviors.

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