Anxiety is the feeling of apprehension and dread that we feel when we think something bad might happen. It has evolved to help us survive in threatening situations. Anxiety is accompanied by physical reactions such as increased breathing, muscle tension and sweating which prepare the body to respond to threat through the fight or flight mechanism (i.e. running away from the threat or fighting it).
In the modern world, any situation which provokes uncertainty can be seen as a threat and trigger anxiety (such as running late for an appointment, speaking in public, not being sure if we can pay our bills and so forth). Depending on the trigger anxiety can last from hours to weeks.
Anxiety is a normal reaction, however, when someone experiences so much anxiety that it starts to interfere with his/her ability to function (e.g. getting to work, completing basic self-care, having friends etc.) it may be classed as an anxiety disorder. It has been estimated that 14% of the Australian population are affected by an anxiety disorder each year.
But why is my anxiety so out of control?
As anxiety stems from the perception of threat, it is certain types of thought patterns and habits of thinking that can maintain anxiety.
Worry involves thinking about bad things that could potentially happen. It is normal and adaptive to worry occasionally as it can help us to solve problems. However, many people can worry to the point that it no longer provides an advantage. Persistent worry and beliefs about worry can make anxiety worse. It is hard to reduce the amount of worrying you do if you actually believe that consistent worrying is good for you. These beliefs, called metacognitive beliefs (beliefs about our thoughts and emotions) sit just below our conscious level, so they influence our decisions without our awareness. For example, if we believe deep down that “worrying can prevent bad things for happening” we will be reluctant to release the habit of worrying, and the more we worry the more we will find to become anxious about.
Excessive Need for Approval
An excessive need for approval can make us very sensitive to the messages we receive from others, whether they be verbal and/or nonverbal. For example we may misinterpret neutral comments or gestures as sign of disapproval or rejection. We might become anxious if someone is more distant than usual, or become self-conscious about how we are coming across to others, leading us to worry about the things we say or do and how others might perceive them. The need for approval can make us afraid to take social risks or respond assertively in our relationships due to fear of generating disapproval.
Striving for perfection can make our world feel less random and therefore feel safer. It can also sustain our desire for approval as we believe others will like, respect and approve of us more if we do things perfectly. Having high standards can be motivating and have its benefits, but the belief that things must be done perfectly is anxiety-producing, due to the ongoing possibility that we will not live up to our expectations. Perfectionism can make it difficult to start or complete a project, can cause us to become overly concerned with small details, and lead us to minimise our achievements and successes.
Excessive Need for Control
Often people who are anxious by nature have an excessive need for control. They believe that if they can control the environment they can make the world safe and predictable by minimising the chance that things will go wrong. Unfortunately this approach just maintains anxiety and gives rise to unhelpful behaviours involved in preparing, anticipating, adjusting, planning, checking, searching, fixing, pre-empting etc. Unfortunately, all of this focus on keeping things safe just creates more anxiety, and also wastes energy, distracts attention and prevents the individual from living a full and meaningful life.
But I’ve been like this forever, can I change?
Yes you can! There are some very effective strategies to challenge and change these problematic thinking habits and thus bring your anxiety under your control. There is a great deal of self-help materials available, but often working with a qualified mental health professional can help you to deal with your anxiety in a safe and structured way and enable you to see results faster.
Greta Neilsen is a clinical psychologist working in Bowen Hills in Brisbane. She has a special interest in working with adults with mental health issues such as anxiety. To find out more or to make an appointment please see the main page at www.gretaneilsenpsychology.com.