What Is Anxiety?
At Sian Jones CBT one of the questions we are often asked is how to deal with anxiety.
Anxiety, concern or worry is a natural response to what someone might view as a stressful situation. However, in some cases, worry can become excessive or chronic and can lead to the sufferer fearing certain everyday situations.
The condition of increasingly persistent anxiety is called ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder’. Other anxiety-related disorders include panic attacks (severe episodes of anxiety that occur in response to specific triggers) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which is tireless intrusive thoughts or compulsions to carry out specific behaviours, such as hand washing or checking the door is locked.
Typical anxiety consists of exaggerated worries and an expectation of an unknown situation ending negatively. This is often accompanied by a number of physical symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, palpitations muscle tension and frequent urination. These can differ by individual.
Anxiety can become a problem if it impacts on your ability to live your life as you want to. For example, if:-
- Your feelings of anxiety are very strong or last for a long time
- Your fears or worries are out of proportion to the situation
- You avoid situations that you believe might cause you to feel anxious
- Your worries feel very distressing or are hard to control
You regularly experience the symptoms of anxiety which could include panic attacks.
- You find it hard to go about your everyday life or do things you enjoy.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder can be potentially be disabling. People suffering with OCD become trapped in a pattern of repetitive, irrational thoughts and behaviours. Left untreated, a severe case of OCD can destroy a person’s ability to function at work or school.
A person with panic disorder experiences sudden and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations or breathlessness. Those who suffer from panic disorder often develop phobias about places where previous episodes have occurred. They also develop fears about experiences that have set off previous attacks, such as taking a flight.
What Causes Anxiety?
People commonly experience their first panic attack during stressful periods in their early or adult life. For example experiencing pressure at home, work, relationships or financial problems, bereavement, or illness, all lead to higher anxiety levels. When people’s anxiety levels are heightened, they are more likely to experience panic attacks.
In reality, it is possible that a combination of these factors play a role in the development of anxiety or panic. However, although it is of some interest, it is perhaps less important to know what causes it and more important to know what stops us dealing with it and moving beyond it.
People may develop anxiety because of evolutionary factors. It is argued that evolution may have primed us to develop fears around certain dangerous situations, because of the benefit this would have brought in the past. For example, being in situations where escape is difficult would have posed a threat to people back in primitive times as they could be cornered by predators. Similarly, open spaces would also leave people vulnerable to attack. By having an inbuilt tendency to fear these scenarios, people would be more likely to avoid them and keep safe. In other words, we may be predisposed to become anxious and panicky in certain situations to encourage us to avoid them.
Thinking Styles/Core Beliefs
More often than not, when people experience anxiety, they start to develop a thinking style that lends itself to experiencing symptoms of anxiety or panic. Those who have a tendency to misinterpret symptoms of anxiety and panic as dangerous are more at risk. For example, thinking that anxiety symptoms are the beginning of a heart attack can cause anxiety to rise further until it reaches the point of a panic attack. Similarly, people who believe that they are going to have future panic attacks are actually more likely to do so. This is because they look out for signs that one is occurring and as a result, notice small symptoms of anxiety which they then misinterpret in the way described above. Coupled with this, people develop a thinking style that tells them that they are ‘unable to cope’ with certain situations or the feelings of anxiety or panic.
What Keeps Anxiety Going?
People tend to avoid or run away from situations that they believe will trigger anxiety or a panic attack (e.g. trains, restaurants, public talking the cinema etc.). Although this may be an understandable way of coping, it’s actually one of the main reasons that people find it difficult to overcome anxiety. This is because, by avoiding certain situations, you prevent yourself from having the opportunity to prove that you can actually tolerate the feelings better than you think you can.
Also, the longer you have been afraid of a situation and the more you have avoided it, the more daunting it becomes and therefore increasingly difficult to face. Not only this, when you avoid one particular situation, you may well begin to doubt that you will cope in similar situations and start avoiding more and more. Before long the fear reaches such a level that that your life becomes extremely restricted.
Using Safety Behaviours
Often, the only time that someone experiencing anxiety feels capable of facing their feared situations is when they use – what is known as a ’safety behaviour.’ An example of this might be, only going out if you are with someone you trust (who you think can ‘come to your rescue’ if you panic). Or gripping tightly onto a shopping trolley to reduce the chances of panicking. Basically, a safety behaviour is anything you do to try and make it easier to cope with your fears.
Although using safety behaviours might lead you to believe that you are able to cope with your anxiety or panic, this is only in the short term. In the long term they are particularly unhelpful. This is because, like avoidance, safety behaviours stop you from having the opportunity to prove to yourself that you can cope with your fears, without putting such precautions into place. Instead you might put any success down to other factors such as “I only coped because I had my friend with me” and your fears remain in place. Before long your become reliant on these safety behaviours and avoid going places when you are unable to use them.
Increased Self Awareness:
Another factor that helps keep anxiety going is the tendency to be hyper vigilant. This means that your study your body for any sign of physical changes that may suggest a panic attack is on its way. Although you might do this to try and reassure yourself that everything feels normal, this strategy actually makes things worse. This is because you tend to notice small physical changes that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, such as feeling hot, for example. Once a small change has been noticed, you naturally ‘keep your eye’ on it. However, the more you focus on a change, the more anxious you become and a vicious cycle begins that can lead to a panic attack. Alternatively, if you notice a change due you might try and escape the situation that you believe has triggered it. However again, this strategy is short term and particularly unhelpful in the long terms
You will be able to identify with some of the above perhaps and some not. However, in general it will be a combination of all the above factors that play a role in keeping your anxiety going.
How To Deal With Anxiety
Research demonstrates that the most effective treatments for anxiety use with either counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy to firstly try and understand when or why the anxiety first started. Then to challenge any distorted thinking patterns that underlie the condition and then challenge and change any unhelpful behaviours. This means gradually exposing sufferers to the situations they fear. It is not until people have changed both any unhelpful irrational thought patterns that they will start feeling better for the long term.
Both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and counselling helps people view the feelings of panic in a different way and demonstrates how this will in fact reduce the anxiety.
If you would like some help with how to deal with anxiety, please contact us at Sian Jones CBT and Counselling today.