Whether it’s a racing heart and sweaty palms before a big meeting, an irrational reluctance to walk into a party, or a strong sense of doom before stepping on to a flight, we’ve all experienced anxiety at some point in our lives.
But an increasing number of people find the palpitations, shortness of breath, tears and trembling too overwhelming and too frequent. Such are the stresses of modern life that many doctors fear we are facing an anxiety epidemic, with more than eight million cases being reported each year in the UK alone.
Anxiety is an essential tool designed to protect us from danger. But these days it is being too often triggered by situations that are emotionally challenging rather than truly life-threatening.
We would know. As a married couple, we’ve been working together for 25 years. As therapists, we’ve trained in numerous psychology and psychotherapy practices and we have worked with thousands of clients to overcome their anxiety disorders.
It is true to say we’ve seen every possible manifestation of anxiety – from quietly destructive to dramatically debilitating. And we’ve established a simple process that really can help.
THE KEY TO FINDING YOUR ANXIETY TRIGGERS
Over the past 25 years, we have seen anxiety manifest itself in so many different ways. But we have come to understand that there is always a trigger – or several triggers – that flick an individual’s anxiety switch.
To get on top of your anxiety, you need to first locate those triggers and then challenge them. This will address the associated thoughts and beliefs that are very likely to be feeding your problem. Our thoughts create our feelings. Our feelings create our actions. And our actions define our lives.
People frequently say ‘surely it can’t be that easy’, but it often is!
The best way to find your triggers is to note down your anxiety episodes in a notebook or on your phone – and what you think might have caused them. The process itself can help provide a positive distraction that can ease symptoms. Look out for clues.
We all inadvertently pick up behaviours or beliefs from parents or friends. Sometimes anxious thoughts can build up over time in response to an accident, abuse, an episode of bullying, or bad parenting. You might spot some trigger situations that you can change – perhaps avoiding toxic friends, or even switching jobs. Some might take a little time, and others (such as a vindictive mother-in-law) you might be stuck with.
However, we have discovered that whatever the trigger, you CAN work to change your response from negative and stressful to more positive. So even if you can’t control the events around you, you absolutely can control how you choose to deal with them. First, you need to question the way you have been interpreting your triggers. Could your perception be flawed or inaccurate? Is there a positive alternative perspective?
We worked with a famous pop star who was extremely confident and outgoing, but who had become very anxious about the prospect of overseas touring. When we asked him to go through a timeline of stressful or difficult events in his life, two stood out. He’d suffered an allergic reaction to nuts when on holiday aged six, and aged nine he’d got stuck in a cave when swimming with his family in Greece. We were able to show him that these were isolated incidents. They were unlikely to recur if he had his allergy medicine nearby, only went swimming in safe environments, and accepted that, as an adult, his risk was minimal.
He actually became quite emotional at finally obtaining an explanation for – and relief – from his constant nagging anxiety. This shows how something as simple as altering your perspective is the best way to set yourself free.
DIAL DOWN THE WORRY
Your brain likes to be occupied, and if you don’t give it something constructive or positive to keep it busy, there’s a risk it will focus on negatives. One great exercise is to create a specific 15-minute ‘worry period’ at a set time each day.
When you find yourself starting to worry, don’t try to stop (this could make things worse), but make a mental note to focus on the worry properly during your allocated ‘worry time’.
Very often, you will find that the concern no longer warrants your time when you do come to reconsider it. If not, ask yourself: ‘Is this problem solvable?’ If it is, decide on a strategy to solve it, and stick to that strategy.
Another useful technique is to make a list of your worries. This takes the worry out of your mind and puts it firmly on paper. Studies show that 85 per cent of what people worry about never happens, and for the 15 per cent that does happen, in 79 per cent of those cases, people discovered they could handle the problem better than they expected. Keep hold of your lists – when you look back at them you will probably notice how few of your fears actually came to light.
USE A WORRY BUTTON
The section of our brain that handles stress and worry has the common sense of an infant and if you can’t stop an infant’s tantrum by applying logic, distraction will often work. So try pressing your ‘worry button’. Imagine that you have a button in the centre of your palm. Think of your main worry and press your button.
As you press it, breathe in to the count of three. As you count one, visualise the colour red; as you count two, see the colour blue; and as you count three, see the colour green. Then exhale and completely let go of anything in your mind. Essentially, this distracts you from other thoughts. But the colours are key too. Red or black are usually seen as stressful colours, so starting with red and changing it to a calm blue and then green also assists in relieving stress.
The people around you can also greatly affect how you feel. If you have a friend who is always anxious, they could make your worrying worse. If one of your parents is or was an over-worrier, there’s every chance you could have inherited the trait. Ask yourself: ‘Did over-worrying enhance my parent’s life?’ If not, why not? Next time you catch yourself worrying, try reminding yourself: ‘I am fine – this is not my worry, it’s my parent’s.’ If there was a time in your life when a series of things went wrong, you might easily find yourself worrying that things will go wrong again in the future.
In cases like these, we’ve found it can be really useful to take a look at just how much has gone right in your life (the exams you’ve passed, the friends you’ve made).
Try keeping a notebook by your bed and getting into the habit of writing down one great thing that happened that day, every day, before you fall asleep. This is a good way to start to retrain those negative thought patterns.
Please keep an eye on our TikTok channel for new uploads every week, with specific videos on anxiety, plus our tips on how to overcome anxiety.Also, we’d love to see you at one of our upcoming workshops this year, where we go into much greater detail on our approach, tips, techniques and methods on how to address and overcome any phobia.