It’s very common for clients to tell me they are feeling anxious, but they can’t understand why. They tell me they have no reason to be anxious and they recently haven’t gone through any anxiety or stress provoking event.
For example, a recent client, Jane (her name has been changed to protect her identity) came to see me and she told me that over the past couple of months she has been feeling anxious for no reason and she said her anxiety just happens out of the blue. Her symptoms included heart racing, tightness in her chest, shallow breathing, sweating and sometimes a headache.
She told me her anxiety start sometimes while she is sitting at her desk and all of a sudden, she feels her heart pounding and all the other symptoms begin to take over. She doesn’t want anyone in the office to notice it, so she goes to the bathroom and locks herself away until the anxiety has passed. For the rest of the day, she feels jittery and can’t focus properly on her work. She told me this could happen to her two or three times a week.
Many people believe anxiety comes out of the blue, for no apparent reason. However, this is rarely the case. Because the anxiety is so overwhelming, it is hard to notice the trigger. When Jane feels anxious, all she can feel are the symptoms in her body and she discounts all other information which led up to her being anxious.
What leads up to your anxiety, and really all emotions, is a thought or behaviour. How we feel, think, behave and our body sensations are all connected. It is very common, that we don’t notice our thoughts. I see this all the time with my clients. When I ask them, what were you thinking about just before you felt anxious, most of them say “I was not thinking anything”. This of course is not possible, as we are constantly thinking, and without a thought there wouldn’t be a behaviour.
After just a couple of sessions, Jane discovered, because she was only recently promoted, she felt that she might not be up for the new job. She believed that everyone in the office is more qualified than her and soon they will discover that it was a mistake to promote her. She also found it difficult to sleep at times, because she thinks about her job and how she can improve her quality of work. This was despite the fact that her boss had told her how well she is fitting into her new role and how much the department appreciates her contributions.
What often happens is that we tend to look for evidence in our environment which confirms our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves. Imagine one of those shape sorters that young children play with. For example, you may believe other people are much better than you are. Let’s say then this belief you hold is a square shape. So, you go through your day collecting square shapes to fit into your shape sorter, all the time confirming to yourself that everyone else is better than you are. If you come across a round shape, which is for example your boss saying you are doing a great job, you discount it, as it does not fit in with your belief or fit into your shape sorter.
Coming back to Jane, because she is having those thoughts, she starts to feel anxious, because her internal alarm system is sensing danger, and therefore sends signals to the body to prepare for fight or flight. Adrenaline starts rushing through the body which causes all of Jane’s symptoms of heart racing, sweating etc. Of course, there is no real danger, it is only imagined danger, that of being “found out” that she is not good enough, and everyone in the office will talk about her.
So, what can you do to reduce your anxiety?
I tell me clients to become a scientist about themselves. Take an outsider perspective and identify what you are thinking, what is happening around you and what are your physical feelings when you are anxious. It’s best to write all of this down as that will engage your logical brain. Anxiety comes out of your emotional part of the brain, which is not logical at all and writing it down will help you to figure out what it is that underlies your anxiety.
Start to collect round shapes. Gather evidence to help you change your beliefs about yourself. Notice when you are discounting the round shapes. For example, when Jane’s boss told her she is doing a great Job, Jane thought “She is only saying this to be nice, she doesn’t really mean it.”
Look at the thoughts you have written down. Ask yourself, if you have any evidence to support them, and also ask what evidence you have got that your thoughts have no substance. Then ask what’s the worst possible outcome. Really exaggerate it. For Jane that was being fired on the spot and everyone talking about her not doing a good job. Next ask what the best possible outcome is and then find a balanced new thought somewhere in the middle.
I also tell me clients to “face their fear” in small doses. Avoiding situations only makes anxiety worse because by avoiding situations confirms to your emotional brain that there really is danger, therefore it needs to continue to prepare your for “fight or flight”. Allow yourself to feel your anxiety, observe it, notice where it is happening in hour body, and also know that it won’t last forever, it will all be over in a few minutes. This way you will be sending messages to your emotional brain that there really is no danger and you are not afraid of anything.
Next time you feel anxious become a scientist and identify your thoughts, behaviours and body sensations. This will be your first step to dealing with anxiety.