The cause of anxiety
In cognitive behavioural therapy, we refer to the anxiety equation. The anxiety equation shows the cause of anxiety:
Overestimation of the threat
____________________________________ = Anxiety
Underestimation of ability to cope
Anxiety is always caused by our overestimation of the perceived threat and our underestimation of our ability to cope or handle the situation.
With regard to overestimating the threat – think about a time when you have anticipated an event and got yourself all worked up over it. Then, when you have actually experienced the dreaded event, you have found that it wasn’t half as bad as you expected it to be. Sound familiar?? This is partly the cause of anxiety. It’s known as anticipatory anxiety.
The other part is that we often underestimate our ability to cope. We tell ourselves we won’t be able to do it or that if the feared thing does happen, we will have a panic attack or not be able to manage it. We talk to ourselves in a fearful way that adds to our sense of dread. What we then do is try to avoid the event (which is the worst thing to do) or we find ways that we feel will help us cope by employing “safety behaviours”.
Safety behaviours are things that we do that help us to cope temporarily in a feared or stressful situation. For some, it may be carrying a bottle of water or looking at our mobile phone (say for example in a situation where we feel anxious socially, in the company of others) or it could be complete avoidance. The problem is that when we avoid something we fear, the fear grows in our mind and we never test out our beliefs. When we face our fears, we often realise that we cope far better than we thought we would and this helps us to grow in confidence.
Even of the feared event doesn’t go that well, we teach ourselves that we still get through it, that we are still standing at the end of it and in this way we chip away at the fearful beliefs.
So, keep facing your fears. Keep repeating this and the more you face the feared situation, the easier it becomes and the less you will fear it. Start with baby steps if need be. For example, if you truly fear walking into a room full of strangers ( a 10 out of 10 rating for anxiety, 0 = no anxiety, 10 = most anxiety), start with a 1 or 2 out of 10 anxiety rating. For example, perhaps start out by entering a room with one friend in it, then a few friends in it (slightly higher rating of 3 out of 10), then progress to a room full of friends (rating 5 out of 10 and then finally a room full of strangers)…this is just a very general example of “graded exposure” – get used to each level until the anxiety dissipates and then progress up to higher rating of anxiety of your feared-situation list.
In this way, you will learn to see the threat for what it really is, which is often less scary than you thought it would be and you also learn that you can cope with difficult situations. You will only know this by testing your beliefs out to see what happens!
You don’t need to live with anxiety – learn to challenge your fears. You may need to be out of your comfort zone more often but in the end, you will expand your area of comfort and feel anxiety much less often and that is something we would all welcome!