The upside of anxiety
Address these five traps, writes Dr Alice Boyes, and you can use your anxiety to your advantage while keeping it in check
Published 21/07/2015 | 02:30
Those of us who live with anxiety know all too well what it feels like. Anxiety means "overthinking" every decision in life, leading to a paralysing inability to take action. It means always expecting the worst has - or indeed will - happen. It means feeling a total failure if our performance - whether as a worker, parent, friend or lover - is less than perfect.
We seem to be in the midst of an anxiety epidemic, or perhaps we are just getting better at admitting how destructive anxiety can be. Anxiety disorders - which can take the form of panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as "free-floating" anxiety - are thought to affect up to one-in-10 people during their lifetime.
Many more people, while not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, are still prone to this debilitating emotion.
And surprisingly, an anxious nature can also be an advantage in life - as long as it isn't out of control. It's only recently that mainstream psychology has recognised the value of so-called negative emotions, which have evolved for a purpose. Our capacity to feel shame warns us against doing things that would lead to being socially excluded, for example, while anger can prompt us to stick up for ourselves and others.
In the same way, anxiety functions as a hypervigilance system that prompts us to scan our lives for potential risks, big and small. Many anxious people have had a lifetime of others telling them: "Don't worry, be happy", which does nothing other than make them feel worse. And studies have found that despite endless exhortations to think positively, the upside to imagining the worst-case scenario - "defensive pessimism" - is that it can motivate you to prepare better and try harder.
So, given that reducing feelings of anxiety to zero is neither possible nor desirable, the key is clearly to accept and work with your nature, rather than to fight it. Problems occur only when anxiety gets to the point at which it's paralysing. These anxiety "traps" have affected virtually all of the anxious clients with whom I've worked.
By addressing the five anxiety traps, you can rebalance your mind, experiencing the benefits of anxiety without huge costs.
Putting off doing something we don't want to do is natural - but anxious people hold back from doing things they do want to do unless they can be 100pc certain of a positive outcome.
Since few situations in life come with such guarantees, so anxious people's lives can get stuck in pause, rather than play mode. Shift your thinking by recognising the value of acting in spite of uncertainty, versus the harm of not acting at all.
l Use the three-question technique. Ask yourself: "What's the best possible outcome?" "What's the worst possible outcome?" and "What's the most likely or realistic outcome?" This is a standard technique in cognitive therapy and will help you balance your options.
Then, ask yourself how you'd cope if the worst did happen. What would you tell yourself, to get through it? Who would you ask for help? Anxiety can cause us not just to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes, but also to underestimate our ability to cope with adverse events and disappointments.
Try identifying three situations - such as changing your takeaway order - where the downside of a "mistake" (not liking your meal) is not significant. Then rehearse acting out your reaction even when you're not certain of the outcome.
A little self-reflection may be a good thing, but ruminating - brooding too much on an event in the past - is the biggest predictor of common mental health problems, according to a 2013 study.
For anxiety-prone people, rumination often takes the form of self-criticism. You berate yourself for minor mistakes, replay social interactions that you think you handled poorly, and wonder what the other people involved think of you. Rumination can be triggered by trivial issues, such as a typographical error in a document, or larger issues such as questioning whether you're enough of a success in your life. But you can nip it in the bud.
Be kind to yourself when you make mistakes - they are part of the universal human experience. Think of a few simple ways you could put the situation right and/or avoid the same mistakes in the future. Act on those plans now if you can, and then move on.
Try to develop a "non-stick" mind, that lets mistakes go. You don't need to sit in silence with your eyes closed - make a conscious decision to watch leaves flutter in the wind, or register the sensation of the floor beneath your feet, to redirect your attention to the present moment.
Rumination can easily become a habit, but habits can be broken. If you catch yourself dwelling in the past, spend two minutes with something mentally demanding (such as a sudoku), which is a proven distraction method.
There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of excellence, but perfectionism - a need to perform flawlessly at all times - can be highly destructive, leaving you dissatisfied with any achievement.
Perfectionists can also spend too much time sweating the small stuff, while avoiding larger issues, leading to even greater anxiety, down the line.
Set limits on overly persistent behaviour. Don't allow yourself to check documents excessively, for instance, and stop for a break after spending 30 minutes working on one task. In this way, you can get some psychological distance before deciding how much more effort it's wise to devote.
Invest time and energy in areas that aren't performance-orientated, such as volunteering or spending time with a child or grandchild.
Allow yourself to stop when a non-critical task is "good enough", even if it is not perfect. The more you practise this, the more you will get done - and the more flexibility you will leave yourself to exact higher standards when required.
FEAR OF CRITICISM
We've all heard the phrase "You shouldn't care what other people think of you". In my view, this is misguided. Being a liked and accepted member of a tribe is helpful for thriving. Being sensitive to social rejection is an evolved skill, not a deficit. But it's unhelpful if you feel so threatened by criticism that you avoid feedback and challenges, or if criticism causes weeks of rumination.
Find one person who you feel comfortable getting constructive feedback from, and ask for their considered opinion on how or where you could improve.
Identify three times in the past when hearing negative feedback helped you correct a small problem before it became too big.
Don't interpret an ambiguous response as a negative. For example, don't assume that just because someone can't fit a meeting with you into their diary for a fortnight, they don't like you or your ideas.
AVOIDANCE AND PROCRASTINATION
We're all guilty of putting off today what can be done tomorrow. But in people with chronic anxiety, procrastination - delaying certain tasks, whether at home, work, school or in relationships - can become extreme and sets up a vicious cycle, causing further stress.
Set aside a weekly "power hour" to tackle small tasks that don't have a fixed deadline and that you'd usually allow to build up.
Learn to scale back large tasks so that you have less urge to avoid them. Tackle cleaning out a drawer rather than a whole room.
Make a list of all the things you've been avoiding, and set yourself a 30-day project, when you take a small step towards at least one of them every day.
The Anxiety Toolkit, by Dr Alice Boyes, is published by Piatkus at €22.10
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