There are broadly two kinds of people who suffer from anxiety:
1. Those who don’t know or don’t recognise what’s going on. They get immersed in anxiety, often to the point of panic, and fail to see a connection between how they are thinking and the alarms going off in their heads.
2. Those who can see that their thinking is distorted but who are overpowered by the alarms.
In anxiety, when your mind and body are controlled by the amygdala, whatever you think seems ‘rational’ at the time. So you check 21 times to make sure that you locked your door as you head out, because ‘what if you didn’t?’ So you stay indoors because something ‘might just happen’ if you go outside and you can’t risk it. So you don’t go to the party because ‘it will just turn out to be an awful, embarrassing experience like all the other parties.’
‘What's wrong with those responses?’ the first category of person might ask. ‘I’m only erring on the side of caution to protect myself from embarrassment, danger or pain.’
Nothing is really wrong with them — except that they are interfering with you living a life based on your own values and goals.
Rigid, inflexible rules and limits fiercely imposed by cognitive distortions to ‘protect’ you from or ‘prepare’ you for life effectively create a cage of fear around you. And the cage gets smaller and stronger over time: you’re eventually left with a tiny number of experiences which feel ‘safe’ to you.
You lose out on the potential of what might have been. Instead, you operate on crazy terms, perhaps driving away the very people you long to associate with, and you end up lonely and afraid, living in the ‘basement’ of the house that might have been your life. You never meet your goals, live your dreams or fulfil your purposes because of your fears.
Anxiety is not a purely mental problem: it’s a behavioural problem.
Anxiety becomes a problem not because you have fears but because you permit these fears to control and guide your behaviour.
Do your actions protect you from anxiety or actually cause your anxiety?
If you can see a connection, you can move into the second category of anxiety sufferer, where you can appreciate the link, but you still can’t cope. You’re still paralysed with fear.
Let’s break that down.
The Impossibility of Thought Repair
When you finally get around to seeing the connection between thought, behaviour and anxiety, what seems like the logical next step? 'Fix your thinking’, right? If you can stop these anxious thoughts and correct your cognitive distortions, it will be easy to change your behaviour, yes?
All the therapists, spiritual gurus and self-development books tell you it’s the right thing to do. ‘Positive thinking’ has created a whole industry of believers, publications and courses. ‘Thought’ becomes the centre of attention.
And, like diets, focusing on thoughts obviously works for some. But if you are trapped in a cage of cognitive distortions and negative thinking, it can be a real battle. For some people, the more they try to alter their thinking, the more the opposite happens. Eventually, trying to think positively creates a negative feedback loop and the anxiety, by being focused on, becomes stronger and more frequent. Therapy, meditation, reading — all just bring the negativity to the fore. After a while, you give up.
You tried, but you failed. You might even come to the conclusion that you’re not meant to be happy.
All the books and gurus say ‘You just didn’t believe strongly enough.’ But what’s really going on?
Your whole issue with anxiety is that you pay too much attention to your thoughts.
Remember the dog analogy from earlier? Your amygdala is a powerful dog which pulls you wherever it feels you will be safe. If all your attention is on trying to get the dog to go away, what will happen? The dog (who thinks that its job is to protect and prepare you) gets stronger and more insistent and overpowers you.
The real question is ‘How much power do you want to give your thoughts?’
The right answer is stop worrying so much about the dog.
You don't need to control your amygdala to reduce your anxiety.
‘Positive thinking’ is too vague. Chanting over and over to yourself that ‘I am getting stronger, I am getting better, I am conquering my fears’ has the unfortunate side-effect of strengthening your weaknesses, flaws and anxieties. They are like rafts tossed into the middle of a stormy ocean — soon lost beneath the waves of terror pulsating from your amygdala.
What you need is a couple of ocean liners of values and goals — determining factors that you want your whole life to follow and resonate with.
The way to cure anxiety is to develop strong, rational, imaginative and emotionally grounded values and goals alongside your negative thinking. Allow the negative thought ‘dog’ to more or less freely roam around and bark whenever it wants. But make sure that you are always accompanied by other thoughts, conscious and intentional thoughts which ring true for you.
Thoughts that are rooted in your truth.
Right behaviour is often easy to identify. It means taking action in line with your personal values and goals. Those who suffer from anxiety have those right actions blocked by a big, black dog — the amygdala.
Sometimes, though, it is not so clear what the right thing to do is. Should you continue in a relationship which is making you unhappy, or should you risk creating something new? Should you leave your job and venture out into the unknown in the hope of something better? Should you take the medical advice or try something different?
As the stakes get higher, the answers are sometimes blurry.
And there’s no simple formula that covers everyone. It might be best if you ended your marriage and sought a new life; it might be bad for you to leave a stable job right now; it might work out worse for you if you have the surgery when you could have coped without. Who knows?
Usually, though, an individual knows what the right thing to do is. The anxiety comes from living with that decision and its repercussions.
Anxiety is the fear of making a mistake.
But even then, an individual can fail to take account of his or her own role in the aftermath: so what if it was a mistake? You can learn from mistakes and move on. So who are you actually afraid of?
The answer is staring you in the face. Well, it is if you’re looking in a mirror.
You’re afraid of yourself.
‘What a fool! I should never have done that!’
‘How idiotic! If only I could go back and change that!’
‘I’m such a loser!’
‘I never get things right!’
‘I deserve this disaster!’
and so on.
So self-critical; so negative; so damning of yourself and your abilities; so judgemental.
What kind of standard of perfection are you holding up with which to compare yourself? Do you really think you can be that perfect all the time?
The questions to ask are along the lines of
‘Where does this self-judgment come from?’
‘Where do the seeds of my perfectionism have their origin?’
‘Who taught me to expect black-and-white answers all the time?’
(Tip: as we saw earlier, it’s usually your parents, teachers or people whom you have chosen as mentors.)
Being Comfortable with Ambiguity
Life usually has no right or wrong answers — not objectively, anyway. Using your ocean liner of values and goals, you can navigate the stormy waters of ambiguity and uncertainty and get somewhere — and if you arrive at the wrong port, you can steam back out to sea and continue your quest.
Living on the Ocean of Ambiguity means that not all questions can be fully answered in every moment. You need to grow more comfortable with your own choices — like getting ‘sea-legs’ when on a ship at sea. There is no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, just a way to navigate according to deeply held values and positive goals which you control.
Operate this way and you will find new areas of life to explore; you will become much more forgiving of yourself and far less self-judgemental.
Some people will face an identity crisis: if they can’t be nervous, anxious, fearful, introverted and withdrawn all the time, what can they be?
Weathering uncertainty and unpredictability might be the beginning of a new You.