by Glynis Sherwood MEd
Anxiety is a ‘fast forward’ emotion that makes you worry about the future, lack confidence to deal effectively with life’s challenges and opportunities, and feel overwhelmed. The keys to overcoming chronic anxiety are to: understand the roots of your anxiety, acknowledge your emotions of fear and sadness, practice being compassionate towards yourself, and learn to calm your body, so you can then work constructively with your thought processes and stand up to fear based beliefs and take effective action.
Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Anxiety
1. You worry a lot – especially about the future – making it hard to enjoy living in the present.
2. You have trouble trusting yourself to make choices. You imagine making critical mistakes or feeling disappointed, leading you to not take the actions that will help you enjoy or improve your life.
3. You often feel overwhelmed and that your mind is racing.
4. You worry that you will embarrass or humiliate yourself, so you hold back on expressing yourself.
5. You find it hard to feel confident about your ability to cope with the multiple demands of life.
6. You make fear based decisions that you end up regretting.
7. You have a difficult time relaxing and feel stressed much of the time.
8. You have trouble getting restorative sleep. You either have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, wake up too early and/or experience nightmares.
9. You have chronic muscular tension, especially in your head, jaw, neck, shoulders or stomach.
10. You feel panicky, and tend to mistake the symptoms of panic – e.g. chest pain, shortness of breath – as signs of serious health problems, making you feel even more anxious.
11. You believe you are inadequate – often in spite of evidence to the contrary.
Where Does Anxiety Come From
Chronic anxiety tends to stem from: 1/ Fear based and negative beliefs – the most common source, and 2/ Trauma – less common. The roots of adult anxiety are often found in childhood, with the most common causes of anxiety being:
- Perfectionist expectations, leading you to believe you can never be good enough.
- Being overly protected by adults, so you come to believe the world is not a safe place.
- Adults taking over your responsibilities, such as homework or chores, so you don’t feel confident about your ability to take care of yourself.
- Difficulties in a person’s family of origin such as abuse, neglect, abandonment, rejection, family breakdown, addiction, death, mental or physical health issues, poverty and moving around a lot.
- Bullying in childhood, especially if done repeatedly by siblings, peers, or at school, and adults did not intervene to adequately protect the child.
- Being ‘different’ and therefore treated as inadequate due to a unique personality, disabilities, sexism or racism.
- Shyness in childhood and difficulty making friends, leading to long term loneliness and isolation.
- Traumatic experiences, especially of a violent nature, can cause anxiety disorders in both children and adults who were not formerly prone to anxiety.
Standing Up to the Inner Critic
Repeated fear based messages become internalized. If you grow up believing the world is not safe or that you lack the skills or confidence to manage your life, then fear becomes the new normal. This fear is often accompanied by it’s mean cousin – the ‘Inner Critic’. The voice of the Inner Critic tears you down, making you doubt yourself, and preventing you from taking the very risks or steps that would help you overcome anxiety. The Inner Critic is particularly insidious as it is often unconscious and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. In other words, you don’t know why you feel bad about yourself, but come to believe that you are flawed, otherwise you wouldn’t feel so worried, unsure of yourself, etc.
A child with a strong Inner Critic can grow up to become and adult who believes s/he doesn’t have what it takes to deal with or enjoy life. The central task of an adult who is dealing with fear based, negative thinking is to stand up to the Inner Critic’s narrative by showing it up for what it really is – a lie. This is done by challenging the Critic’s distorted thinking and taking positive action in spite of anxiety, thereby reclaiming one’s personal identity from negative stereotypes, and discovering the truth about one’s strength and capabilities.
A Few Words About Trauma
Traumatic experiences can make a person particularly vulnerable to anxiety disorders. If you are suffering from PTSD or traumatic grief, you need to find a skilled psychotherapist to help you get back on your feet. The goal of trauma therapy is to stop the symptoms by calming the body, and helping the trauma sufferer stop avoiding or being overwhelmed by traumatic memory, emotions and thinking processes.
What To Do About Anxiety
A major challenge in overcoming anxiety is learning to slow things down in order to start living more in the moment from a place of calm and confidence. Taking a ‘one step at a time’ approach to dealing with anxiety is very important
Step 1: Identify the Early Warning Signs of Anxiety
Many people experience physical discomfort such as a shallow breathing, muscular tension and/or headaches. Early warning signs might also be fear based thinking – usually some version of believing that you can’t cope. The important thing is to become familiar with your own unique early warning signs and to take action to defuse anxiety before it becomes full blown.
Step 2: Stay and Calm Your Body or Exit the Situation
When you become aware that the early warning signs of anxiety, stop what you are doing for a few minutes.
• Assess whether the situation you are in is good for you, and if not leave if you can.
• If the situation is neutral or non-threatening but you feel anxious anyway, you need to focus on relaxing your body first. Anxiety causes stress hormones to circulate that undermine your ability to think clearly and make the choices you want.
Take a break away from your desk, dinner table or other social environments, and find a private place. If you are driving, pull over your car. Focus on breathing normally from your diaphragm (i.e. belly). On your in breath, let your belly fill up with air, and on your out breath, release your breath by relaxing your belly. If you are having trouble breathing from your diaphragm, place your hand on your belly so you can feel the expansion and contraction as you breathe in an out. When you breathe in, say to yourself “Breathing in relaxation”, and when you breathe out say “Releasing tension”. After a few minutes – about 5 tops – your stress hormones should return to normal, making it possible to think more rationally.
Step 3: Identify Fear Based Thinking
Once you begin to feel calmer, identify your anxiety triggers – a memory, place, interaction, etc. – and the thinking process that accompany those triggers. You will likely discover a thought, a series of thoughts that lead to deep seated beliefs that promote worry thinking. For example: “I don’t know how to express myself well and just know that I’m going to blow this job interview”, or, “I can’t pick up the phone and ask him out because he’ll probably reject me”, or, “I can’t talk to my son’s teacher about his grades as I’ll just get tongue tied and make a fool of myself”.
These kind of self-defeating thoughts usually stem from believing that you haven’t got what it takes, can’t cope, are incompetent, incurably awkward, etc. Beliefs can be unconscious and hard to unearth, but it’s very important to dig deep and discover them as they are the source of fear based thinking. Uncovering these negative beliefs about yourself will help you to stand up to anxiety.
Step 4: Evaluate Your Thoughts and Beliefs
Ask yourself “How true is that fear-based thought or belief? Is there any evidence to the contrary or exceptions to it? Is the problem a reflection of some weakness in myself, or is it more about the negative way I am viewing myself?” If it’s a weakness in yourself, figure out what you can do to improve your situation, e.g. develop your self confidence, or get more skills training. If you are being harshly critical of yourself, stand up to the Inner Critic.
If you are dealing with fear based beliefs, feelings or memories that are the aftermath of a Traumatic experience, connect with a skilled counselling therapist to help you break free from these triggers.
Step 5: Stand Up to Anxious Thinking by Taking Action
If fear is holding you back from making choices and taking the actions you desire, break the decision or action down into steps, and start by taking the least threatening step. Having a plan will help you act in spite of the fear, and if the small step doesn’t work out, there’s little at stake. You can always back up and start with an easier step.
For example, you think it’s a good idea to socialize more but are extremely anxious in group social situations because you feel awkward and worry that you won’t know what to say, will be rejected, etc. You decide to attend an event where you know at least one person whom you can talk to, but also decide to introduce yourself to someone new, and break the ice by asking about their life. Whether the interaction is positive or negative, you make the decision ahead of time that you will introduce yourself to one other person at this event. You remind yourself that most people love to talk about themselves, and you are not asking them for anything, so the risk of rejection is low. You continue to attend social events and meet people in this way until you feel confident enough to ask someone new out for coffee.
If you are dealing with fear based thinking that is not founded on any ‘provable’ weakness about yourself or any real threat you will have to practice ‘negative thought stopping’ and ‘positive thought substitution’. For example, you are meeting a senior manager and worry you will come across as a poor communicator. You redirect your thinking to remembering positive aspects of your past job performance, and remind yourself that, although you feel anxious, you are a competent person with the track record to prove it.
The path to breaking free from anxiety is to stop overwhelm through calming your body, nervous system and mind so you can think rationally, realistically and affirmatively, and take effective action.
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Certified Addictions Counsellor is a Therapist specializing in recovery from Chronic Anxiety, Relationship Problems, Grief, Family Scapegoating and Love Addiction.