Anxiety can paralyse you but it can be overcome with a change in outlook, writes Suzanne Harrington
WE’RE living in an age of anxiety. There’s so much to worry about it’s hard to know where to start — or how to stop. Whether it’s the personal (health, money, exams, jobs, housing, our children) or the political (climate change, economic inequality, the rise of nationalism, global injustice, terrorism), there’s plenty to keep us awake at night.
From the trivial (appearance anxiety, status anxiety, consumer anxiety) to the ridiculous (could Donald Trump actually be nominated?), we have limitless fears on which to ruminate, that if left unchecked could easily drive us around the bend. And that’s before you ever consider our irrational anxieties, like snakes or spiders.
Yet if we cannot rise above this ceaseless unease, life would be no fun at all, but an endless train of catastrophic thought — even when nothing is actually going wrong in our immediate sphere. One of the most annoying cliches — cheer up, it may never happen — is based in statistical truth. The stuff you worry about tends not to happen (yet with horrible irony, the stuff you don’t even consider can come and blindside you without warning — yet perversely, we tend to cope quite well in a crisis.)
If you are a Willy Worry, you may spend a disproportionate amount of your time considering terrible things that probably won’t happen. The worst place to be is in a state of fear and worry — it consumes you, interferes with your ability to take pleasure in normal life, and wastes a lot of time. Your adrenal glands don’t much like it either.
A new book by personal development author Gill Hasson could be just the thing — unlike so many other titles promising to destress your life, Overcoming Anxiety is clear, concise and accessible. First, she identifies three aspects of anxiety — physical (sweating, racing heart shallow breathing, dry mouth, nausea), cognitive (basically, you’re freaking out inside your head, your thoughts having run away with you) and behavioural (nail biting, smoking, gum chewing, running away from the situation). Then there’s all the different ways anxiety can manifest — Generalised Anxiety Disorder (where ‘normal’ worrying becomes disruptive, distressing and uncontrollable); panic attacks (where you physically think you may pass out/die, the anxiety crosses over into terror, lasts upto 20 minutes, and is horribly unpleasant); phobias (irrational fear of everything from leaving the house to sharks in the swimming pool); OCD (frequent intrusive obsessive thoughts leading to compulsive ritualised behaviours); and IBS (a physical condition of the gut which can be rooted in anxiety).
None of these are any fun, but the good news is that they are all treatable — once you recognise what you are up against.
The first thing is to get a handle on how your thoughts can work against you. In terms of negative self-talk and cognitive distortions, we are brilliant at running ourselves down. We jump to (negative) conclusions, catastrophise, over-generalise (“I screwed up once so I will screw up forever”), mind-read (incorrectly), tunnel-think (instead of zooming out), filter out the positives, think in black and white, beat ourselves up with the ‘shoulds’ and perfectionism, engage in personalisation (where everything is all about you, in a negative sense) and victimisation. Oh, and emotional reasoning — you feel stupid therefore you are stupid.
“If negative self-talk came with an off switch, you could just flip it,” says Gill Hasson. “But it doesn’t. It takes some effective techniques, effort and practice.” In other words, you have to retrain your brain to steer it away from catastrophic thinking and the kind of inner critic that constantly assaults you, towards something kinder, more rational, and with more perspective.
By changing how you think, you will change how you react to situations — which sounds basic and obvious, because it is. Neutralise the inner critic by reframing it in kinder, more objective language. Reassure yourself. Tell yourself ‘well done’. After a while, this kinder inner voice becomes habituated. You treat yourself better, and you feel better. Train your mind to notice the good stuff — Hasson suggests a gratitude list, where you note down a few good things — nothing is too small to be included — each night before going to sleep. This really works, by the way, even if it feels a bit daft initially. As does blasting yourself with endorphins via exercise, eating mindfully, and engaging with others so that you don’t remain swamped in self. All simple and straightforward, unless you happen to be trapped in the horrors of anxiety.
Being mindful of your anxiety is halfway to letting it go. For instance, if your guts go all crunchy because of something you did or did not do, the trick is to observe your anxious thoughts the way you’d watch items pass by on a conveyor belt. Oh look, there’s me having anxious thoughts. And here I am letting them go. And breathe. And exhale them away.
Overcoming Anxiety: Reassuring Ways To Break Free From Stress And Worry And Lead A Calmer Life by Gill Hasson, pub Capstone £10.99
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