Am I always going to be anxious?

This past May I had taken my last set of finals examinations before receiving my diploma for graduate school. Looking back now, I always knew I’d make it through, but in the midst of it was straight panic.

All I had to do was sit down for 5 finals, 2 hours each, 100+ questions per, all comprehensive covering an accumulation of 90+ chapters—yeah, not fun. And all for the sake of passing so my student loans don’t go to waste—also, not fun. Nothing anxious about this scenario at all.

College has the potential to transform any person into a nervous wreck. This is not to say there aren’t the lucky few who don’t experience high levels of anxiousness, but the majority don’t seem to have it this way.

But the question you’re asking yourself is am I always going to be anxious? Because there isn’t a clear cut answer for such a vague question, it might be better to start off with a subtle answer—yes. Yes, you might always be anxious. However, perhaps not the anxious you might be thinking about.

Anxiety is defined as overwhelming thoughts of the near or distant future enough to strike moments of fear in the present. Going back to my college story, there was a striking fear of failure regarding those final exams. It felt absolutely awful and I felt absolutely stuck.

I’m sure you can think of the times whenever you may have felt stuck similarly. This is what we can call high levels of anxiety, or non-helpful anxiety. But you might be thinking well when is anxiety ever helpful? We will get there.

Some might say the complete opposite of anxiety is freedom, or a life without worry, but we couldn’t be so wrong. The opposite of high anxiety would be low anxiety, or what I like to call optimal anxiety.

Halfway through university I remember a professor who once spoke of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This law suggests that if one were to experience high levels of anxiousness during something strenuous, you’re likely to mess up or fail. It also suggests that if you have no worry at all, or all the confidence in the world, you’re likely to do just as bad as those who had high levels. So is the answer that no one can just not worry? No.

The third part of this law states that those who experience lower levels of anxious—low enough that one can function—then you’re likely to be in an optimal state and can do very well at whatever strenuous task that is before you. So those who have lowered levels of anxiety, not zero anxiety, are likely to be worried just enough to put in effort on their tough task.

I didn’t buy this idea at first, but finishing out college, and other difficult decisions I had to make during my early 20s made me reconsider how true this was for the likes of me. And perhaps, you too.

Rather than asking yourself if you’re always going to feel anxious, the short tough answer is, yes. Well, most likely. However, does that mean you’ll be experiencing optimal anxiety the majority of the time? Let’s hope so. Does that mean you’ll be experiencing very high levels of anxiety all the time? Let’s hope not. But, what good would this post be without a how-to section for some additional help regardless of the level of anxiousness you’re at right in this moment.

Here are a few things that have helped myself and others along their journey to find optimal anxiety levels:

  1. Rather than comparing yourself to others, try to realistically compare your old self to who you are right now. Or, compare who you are now to who you’d like to be aka your ideal self. This could help manage anxiousness.

  2. Write a list of all the worries you have right at this moment. Make sure you write it all down. Then, cross out the ones that are simply impossible to take care of due to time. For example, you might be worried about traffic tomorrow on the way to work, but it’s not tomorrow yet so you can go ahead and cross it off your list. You’d be surprised at how much of your list will be crossed out once you’re done.

  3. Feel your heartbeat right now, and when you begin to feel anxious, see if it speeds up. If it does, or you notice other things like sweaty palms, a headache, or other signs of anxious feelings, try to tell yourself that your body is trying to prepare you for something. Rather than thinking “I’m worrying, I can’t...,” try and say “my body is preparing me to do something new.” I do this every time before a public speaking engagement. And it works most of the time to calm my jitters.

  4. Begin to document when you start feeling anxiousness. Perhaps it’s mainly in the mornings or afternoons. Maybe it occurs when you drive or talk to a neighbor. Then I want you to notice all the times between where you find yourself not feeling anxious. Chances are there are many times you don’t remember when you have much lowered anxiety. This is important to acknowledge and appreciate.

  5. Lastly, practice a self rating system. For instance, whenever I feel anxiousness, I ask myself: “is this my helpful or non-helpful anxiousness?” Then you can rate it on a scaling system to better understand where you’re at in that moment of time.

And there you have it! Well, almost. It’s going to take time to understand what level of anxiousness you’re at moment to moment. Sometimes we worry so much about what’s going to happen next we forget how much power we have in the present. Try out these tips and add more to the list as you learn. I have faith you’ll find out something newer about yourself once you begin to understand how to find that optimal level of anxiety.

Jacob Kountz is the founder of Kern Wellness Counseling, a mental health blog, in Bakersfield, CA. His works have been featured on USA Today, Thrive Works, Fatherly, Martha Stewart Weddings, Thrive Global, and is a Charlotte Counseling & Wellness contributor. His blog has also been ranked as one of the top 60 Mental Health Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2018. Currently, he is a full-time graduate student and a Clinic Manager of a mental health training clinic at a local CSU where he provides therapy for individual adults, adolescents, and children, couples and families. He aspires to one day open a private practice in Bakersfield, CA so he may continue to serve his local population.

Jacob Kountz