This post will form the first part of a double series on the topic of anxiety. In today’s article I will be focusing on what exactly anxiety is, including the various forms in which it manifests, and discuss how and why it can come about. In my next post, I will discuss how the various different forms of anxiety can be approached and dealt with.
As has previously been mentioned about depression, there is quite a lot of misunderstanding in society about anxiety in general and how it comes about. Many people associate anxiety simply with being nervous about something, for example an exam or giving a speech. Thankfully, for a large number of people, feelings of anxiety are confined to such specific, fairly rare occurrences in their lives, and after the task generating anxiety has been completed, such sensations of nervousness usually subside. Yet for other people it is not so simple. For many of us including myself, anxiety is, and has been, a pervasive, almost constant companion which often leaves you feeling completely exhausted and fed up.
Firstly, let’s talk a little bit about the various forms of anxiety, so as to separate them and make them clearer. Anxiety is not a simple thing, and neither is it particularly easy to define, but for the sake of simplicity let’s call it a sense of underlying fear, panic or dread that causes various physical symptoms from shallow breathing and muscle tension to lightheadedness and heart palpitations, among others. It is a feeling that manifests in different ways for different people, but if you really check in with yourself, it is easy to detect. Before I go on, I want to be clear that in these posts I will not be referring to feelings of anxiety caused by serious trauma such as physical abuse or PTSD. In these cases it is better to just go straight to a mental health professional. These posts will be covering more ‘everyday’ issues of anxiety, which I will now elaborate on.
As mentioned earlier, feelings of anxiety can come about for various reasons and can endure for varying lengths of time. The first form of anxiety I like to call event-based anxiety. This is anxiety that comes from the fear of an impending, upcoming event such as an exam, an interview, giving a speech in public, or perhaps having a “chat” with your boss. This type of anxiety is the most common and widespread amongst all people, and most of us can resonate with this to at least some degree. Event-based anxiety, as with all types of anxiety, has its roots in future-based, ‘what if‘ style thinking where you imagine all the things that could go wrong in the particular event. For example, what if I fail my exam? What if I say something stupid in the interview? What if my boss fires me? It is these kinds of thoughts which lead to feelings of anxiety around the event and have you imagine that it’s somehow going to be awful.
The second type of anxiety I call situational. This is a fear of being in certain situations and can often manifest instantly and seemingly out of nowhere. For example, social anxiety is a classic example of situational anxiety – someone with this kind of anxiety would likely feel anxious when in social situations, but not when they are alone. Such a person might be walking down the street alone, then suddenly bump into someone they know and start to feel anxious. Anxiety around arguments and conflict is another example of this, and one I personally feel acutely. Have you ever been in a room where all seemed calm, only for someone to say something slightly out of turn and then all hell broke loose, both in the room and subsequently your own mind? Many of us don’t deal well with arguments and conflict and this type of situation can frequently lead to feelings of anxiety.
The third kind of anxiety is what medical professionals might call GAD, or generalised anxiety disorder. This is basically a constant state of anxiety for seemingly no reason at all, and is often the result of years of fearful thinking left unchecked. With this type of anxiety, it may feel as though this is your default state no matter what you do and who you’re with. It can severely rob you of pleasure and enjoyment in life and leaves you feeling perpetually drained, as if you need to constantly battle your own mind just to feel OK. Solutions I will deal with more in my next article, but the most important thing to know with this type of anxiety is that it must come from somewhere. No one is born anxious, and it is not a default state for any healthy human being. It is important when dealing with this type of anxiety to identify the source of it first, which may be multifaceted.
The above is a particularly important point – nobody’s default state who is healthy, harmonious and balanced within themselves is ever anxiety. Constant anxiety is more often than not the result of a continuous misuse of the imagination which then becomes anchored emotionally within us. Once this continuous emotional ‘setting,’ if you like, has been established, it can be very difficult to get out of. This is because by continuously thinking certain thoughts that have an emotional charge, these emotional blueprints get inlaid, or ‘stuck’ in the subconscious mind.
The subconscious mind works on emotions – thoughts with no emotion attached are easily forgotten – but those with a strong emotion attached to them, such as fear, are likely to become anchored and repeated. This is particularly true with fear and anxiety, because your subconscious mind begins to believe that you are constantly in danger and will activate your fight or flight response even when there is no real threat. It is exactly for this reason why many anxious people can easily get stuck in a loop, whereby they have an anxious thought, which triggers a subsequent emotion, which then triggers more anxious thoughts, and so on.
The main reasons why anxiety might occur in anyone are a misuse of the imagination and an underestimation of your own capabilities. Does this mean that the majority of people are using their imagination perfectly and are incredibly self-confident? Of course not. Why some people are more prone to anxiety than others is normally twofold – a heightened level of sensitivity, and a more active imagination. I, for example, have always been a very sensitive person with a very active imagination. I often haven’t used this imagination very well and, coupled with my sensitivity, as a result have experienced a lot of anxiety in my life.
The most important thing to know, regardless of which kind of anxiety you’re dealing with (or none at all), is that anxiety can be diminished, released and moved on from. It certainly isn’t always easy and often takes time, but it can be done. As a first step before my next post, many of the suggestions given on this site are a fantastic place to start. A regular meditation practice will help to calm your mind and get you back to the present moment. Since the state of anxiety is almost always based on thoughts of the future, it is almost impossible for it to exist when truly present and in the now. Just put your focus onto your breathing and notice how much calmer you feel in 10 minutes’ time. Being more mindful of trigger thoughts will also help to diminish anxiety, as it will help you to put them into perspective as just ‘more thoughts,’ rather than giving them so much significance. Diet and exercise also play a big role – if you haven’t read it yet, please refer to my previous post on diet and the mind. Knowing what kind of foods to eat and what to avoid, you will be doing yourself a massive favour on the path to peace.
By putting these into practise, you will already be building yourself a strong foundation from which to build a more peaceful, harmonious and balanced life. Of course this is just the beginning, so please stay tuned for my next post in two weeks’ time where I will be going into more detail about the nature of control/no control in anxiety, and offering more hints and tips on how to move on from anxiety for good.
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