Anxiety: What it is and how to deal with it
All of us have felt worried or anxious at some point in our lives – but for some people, these uncomfortable feelings can be more serious and debilitating.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, affecting one in four people at some stage in their lives. Those with anxiety may have persistent, excessive worries about seemingly unimportant problems, along with trouble relaxing and constant restlessness. The condition can interfere with your ability to concentrate, sleep and carry out everyday activities.
Fortunately, it can be managed with the right treatment. Clinical psychologist and author Sarah Edelman has delved into the subject in her new book, No Worries: A Guide to Managing Anxiety and Worry Using CBT. Over 60 talked with Edelman to gain a deeper look into the condition and discuss the best strategies to deal with unhelpful thinking.
Over 60: What is the most common misconception about dealing with worry and anxiety?
Sarah Edelman: The most common misperception is that you can just get over it by thinking rationally, or just trying to see reason. To change ingrained habits, we need a better understanding of anxiety, how it influences the way that we think and how it affects our behaviour. It is also helpful to recognise the beliefs that maintain the urge to worry. People can substantially reduce the frequency and intensity of anxiety, but it requires knowledge, self-awareness and practice of new habits.
O60: Why do we develop worries and anxious thoughts?
Edelman: The human brain evolved in environments that were highly dangerous, so paying attention to threat had evolutionary benefits. Although our world is far safer than the one occupied by our Stone Age ancestors, our brain is still designed to pay attention to threats.
Many people are particularly prone to experiencing anxiety because they are genetically wired that way. Often there is a family history of anxiety, and sometimes depression as well. In addition, early life experiences have shaped our view of the world. People who grew up in an environment where aversive experiences are unpredictable and uncontrollable are more likely to have developed a vigilant, threat focused thinking style. This makes them prone to anxiety and worry.
People may also become more anxious in later life because of feelings of vulnerability that come with having less control over our lives. If we have already developed habits such as excessive worry and overthinking, these may become more ingrained in later years, particularly if we don’t have lots of distractions.
O60: Why do some people have difficulty letting go of this “unhelpful thinking”?
Edelman: In addition to our history and genetic disposition, we develop beliefs about the benefits of overthinking and staying vigilant to threat. These beliefs are usually unconscious, but can be brought to consciousness quite easily through introspection. Common beliefs that maintain the urge to worry include:
- Worry prepares me for the worst
- Worry help me to solve problems and motivates me to get things done
- Worry gives me control
- Worry means I care
- Worry can prevent bad things from happening
- To not worry would make me careless and irresponsible.
As long as we believe that worry is protective, we are highly motivated to keep it up. Most often, we don’t even realise that these beliefs affect our urge to worry.
O60: Are there any simple habits that people can apply to their daily life to reduce worry and anxiety?
Edelman: Don’t confuse thoughts for reality. Just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true. If you are anxious, your perspective is likely to be biased by anxiety. Your thoughts become catastrophic. You cannot trust the content of your thoughts when you are in an anxious state.
Use mindfulness exercises to build awareness of what is happening within your own mind. Observe your current experience, including the contents of your mind. Identify and label worry thoughts in action. Recognise that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not you, and they are not reality.
Practise relaxation techniques to help identify physical tension as it emerges, and learn how to release it.
Reflect on why you feel drawn to engage with worry. Remember that worry is about trying to be safe by considering all negative possibilities, but it never brings you the reassurance that you seek.
Don’t confuse worry for problem-solving. You can problem-solve without worrying, by brainstorming solutions with pen and paper in hand. Worry does not add value to problem-solving. Don’t assume that worry prevents good or bad things from happening. Worry makes no difference to life events.
Problem-solve if appropriate, but if it is out of your hands, practise acceptance. Many things are not within your control. Uncertainty is a normal part of life. Relax into uncertainty.
Many problems resolve themselves. You don’t always need to intervene. Give them time.
When we feel bad, it feels like this is our new reality, and things will never change. But upsetting emotions pass. Sometimes the situations themselves change, but if they don’t, we adjust to the new reality. Time heals.