Anxiety is on the rise. Covid certainly hasn’t helped, but the fact that life is uncertain leaves many of us trying to stay safe in an unpredictable world. There are, however, things that we do that help us and things that make anxiety worse.
Knowing what increases anxiety is useful because anxiety is unwelcome. Unfortunately, you’ll never be able to eliminate anxiety completely (some anxiety is good and helps us avert danger) but there are habits you can practise to be less affected by unnecessary anxiety and stress.
Thinking too much is definitely overrated. When we focus on our anxious thoughts, we tend to flip through a series of scenarios. We end up going on a downward thought spiral, a simple thought can turn into full-blown panic. Thoughts aren’t facts yet many of us buy into every thought and treat them as facts. As the saying goes, an idle mind is a dangerous mind.
Our brains tend to default to negative thinking, a biological tendency that we have inherited from our ancestors as a way to keep us safe from danger. Modern-day danger is different though – we might feel anxious about a work deadline or our upcoming tax bill. Modern-day stress might not kill us as a lion might’ve eons ago but the threat response is the same.
Try not to get caught up in your thoughts, most of them are nonsense thoughts that don’t provide any value.
Grounding techniques to ‘turn off’ your threat response – fight/flight/freeze
This is why it’s important to keep our thoughts in perspective and use grounding techniques to turn off our threat response. You can do this by breathing deeply and slowly. Another way to gain perspective is to focus on your present surroundings rather than getting caught up on the chaotic thoughts in your mind. Stop and notice what is going on around you – what can you see, touch, hear, smell and taste?
2.Errors in thinking
The types of thinking patterns we engage in can make or break our happiness. Your thoughts have a lot of power and when you keep an eye on your ‘mental diet’ you’ll be better placed to focus on positive, productive thoughts instead of the d]fearful ones that are based on insecurities.
Examples of errors in thinking
Catastrophizing – when one thing goes wrong do you tend to think about what will happen next and end up in a serious situation in your mind that will probably never happen?
Mind-reading – do you ever make inaccurate assumptions about what others think of you?
Self-criticism – If you think badly about yourself, that’s not fact. Others may not agree with your self-criticism. It serves no purpose and will only increase your anxiety.
Predicting the future – do you imagine things going badly and then decide not to do anything? For example – imagine that you worry you will embarrass yourself at an upcoming party. It might not happen but the thoughts lead to overthinking and worry and anxiety.
Black-and-white thinking – the world is full of grey areas. Having rigid rules about the world will add to anxiety because the world will constantly show you grey – not black-and-white. Believing someone or something is good or bad will increase your fears – accept that the world consists of many equations and let it go.
The more flexible you are in your thinking, the happier you will be.
Shoulds and Musts – when you place pressure on yourself, that will raise your stress levels. There isn’t a Rule book of Life that states that you MUST and you SHOULD. Question whether thinking this way helps or hinders you.
See more examples of unhelpful thinking styles below:
3.Avoiding what makes you anxious
The more you avoid, the longer your fears will stick around (and your anxiety). You gain confidence by approaching your fears and seeing what happens. Think of it as a behavioural experiment. Either it will go well and you will feel great BUT even if it doesn’t go well, you will find that your life goes on. The anticipation is frequently far worse than the actual event.
If you hate socialising, make an effort to go out more. You can start with small steps and go sit in a coffee shop alone. Just being around others without interacting is a good first step. Then when you feel comfortable with that, perhaps talk to a stranger or ask a friend to go with you.
If you regularly avoid things in life – do the opposite. It’s the BEST way to gain confidence even though this seems counterintuitive.
Thoughts aren’t facts and they will keep coming. We all have intrusive thoughts but learning to observe them rather than believing every thought that appears will help you stay balanced. Say to yourself, “I see that I am having a thought about not liking myself”. When you see your thoughts as separate from you they lose their emotional impact and are less likely to overwhelm you.
Approach situations, experiences that you fear. You can start small and build your way up. Avoidance is the worst thing you can do and it will maintain your anxiety. You will feel better in the short-term but in the long-run you won’t decrease your anxiety. The unchallenged threat/fear will still remain. When you approach something you fear, you teach your brain that it can cope and your brain remembers for the next time. Repetition is key though and you can’t approach your fears once – keep doing it. Invite uncertainty into your life and see it as excitement rather than as something to be frightened of.