Your heart races. Your palms are sweaty. Your whole body becomes tense and even breathing becomes difficult. What started as just a thought has grown into something intolerable and your whole body is reacting to it. The question is, how do you make it stop?
We all experience anxiety. It is a normal, everyday emotion that humans have lived with for tens of thousands of years. Anxiety is thought to be linked to a primitive survival instinct within us all, known as the fight-flight-freeze response. This response is useful in making us aware of potentially dangerous situations and priming our body to respond appropriately. This response was undoubtedly necessary in the days of sabre-tooth tigers and wooly mammoths, but has a nasty habit of interfering with day-to-day life in the twenty-first century.
Occasional, low-level anxiety is unpleasant but generally tolerable. Most people will worry about something during the course of a day. However, anxiety becomes a problem when we spend too much time worrying and we allow these negative thoughts to dictate our lives. Fortunately, there are a number of ways we can overcome anxious thinking and reclaim our lives.
1. Learn about anxiety and how anxious thinking is cyclical in nature.
Our thoughts influence our feelings and vice-versa. When we feel anxious, we worry more. When we worry, we feel more anxious. Through understanding how our thoughts and our feelings are related to one another, it is possible to see how anxious feelings come to dominate our minds.
2. Start challenging anxious thoughts and see things in a more realistic way.
Just because we think something, does not make it real. Just because we are worried about our car breaking down on the way to an important meeting, does not mean that it will. When we are feeling anxious, we engage in catastrophic thinking - we start to expect the worst-case-scenario. Just because we are able to imagine the worst-case-scenario, does not mean that it is going to happen.
3. Stop avoiding the things that make you feel anxious.
Our thoughts and feelings can influence our behaviour. We might start avoiding doing the thing we are worrying about and this, in turn, can become part of the difficulty. If we are anxious amongst strangers, we might avoid going to parties or other social gatherings. Unfortunately, by avoiding something, we only reinforce our anxious thoughts and feelings. If possible, we should aim to do the very thing that makes us feel anxious. By facing our anxieties, we learn that reality is often far more tolerable than our negative expectations of how things might be.
4. Reduce the amount of time you spend worrying.
Worrying about something achieves nothing more than focusing our minds on negative thoughts and feelings. With this awareness, we should aim to spend time engaging in activities that make us feel more relaxed. Do some exercise, talk to a friend, read a book, or engage in a creative activity. Tai Chi, Yoga, and meditation are well-known relaxation activities but simply the act of slow, measured breathing can help us achieve a state of calm. It is your mind and you have control over it.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
01851 871094 / 07815662208