EVERYWHERE we go people tell us that they are stressed. In a globalised, digital world in financial recession, we are asked to do more and more with less and less. 24/7 connectivity leaves us constantly stimulated and engaged.
The result is a nationwide increase in stress and an increase in diagnosable anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders take a variety of forms. Most people will be aware of panic attacks or OCD, but fewer people might know health anxiety and social phobia, even though they are nearly as common.
In the UK, 15pc of the population has an anxiety disorder at a cost to the Exchequer of £9bn (€10.75bn) per annum. There is no reason to think that a similar percentage of people don't experience anxiety disorders in Ireland.
A crude calculation would put that cost at €750m per annum. This isn't a small problem.
The one question that everyone asks is why won't anxiety go away. Below are five responses to anxiety that we get trapped in, because rather than decreasing our anxiety these reactions drive it up. Each response is natural and normal but perpetuates the anxiety rather than decreases it.
Running away from fear
Susan Jeffrer's book 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway' summarises a thousand theses in a brilliant title. Running away from fear seems like a sensible thing to do. Why would I do something that makes me feel uncomfortable?
Tigers are dangerous, I don't go up to pet them. But in the modern world our fears aren't as clear as lions and tigers.
Our fears are of judgement, of rejection, of cancer and heart attacks. And, we can't leave these fears behind by running away from them. In fact the opposite happens, the more we avoid something the more it follows us.
Avoidance increases and perpetuates our anxiety. If we avoid something, whether it's the first day of school or a doctor's visit, it becomes harder the second time and even harder the third time.
For someone with social phobia speaking up in a group creates the same anxiety reaction our ancestors felt when they saw the tiger. But avoiding speaking in that meeting will perpetuate that anxiety, not decrease it.
The JFDI principle
When we are anxious, we all notice the physical feelings: feeling sick before an exam or our hands trembling, but there is also a stream of thoughts going on underneath: "It's too busy in here, I'm feeling faint"; "I might collapse"; "It's too dirty"; "I might become sick".
A key to reducing anxiety is understanding that a thought is not a fact. Just because we think it, doesn't make it true. How often have we thought we couldn't cope but actually pulled through and sometimes with aplomb.
We can challenge our anxious thoughts by recalling all the previous situations in which we survived, coped and even flourished.
Equally thinking alone won't get us there. We also have to do it and then do it again so that our mind learns it is safe. JFDI – Just Do It (the F is for emphasis) and notice that you've done it and managed.
If we go, experience anxiety, tolerate it and then go and experience again, our body starts to acclimatise but we have also taught our mind that the experience is actually safe.
Worrying about worry
Ironically, often people's biggest anxiety isn't outside. It is anxiety itself.
The primary maintainer of anxiety disorders is the fear of anxiety. As people put themselves into stressful situations and begin to challenge their thoughts and their routines, their anxiety goes up. People then panic and worry about the health implications and whether they can cope.
There's some important information to understand about anxiety. It is natural, it developed to keep us safe from threat and while it is highly uncomfortable to experience it, it is not dangerous.
Billions of people will be anxious today. Some of them will have been anxious for decades. It is an awful feeling but worrying about it increases anxiety, not decreases it.
One of the key insights to teach ourselves is that anxiety is awful but not dangerous. We need to make a commitment to ourselves that worrying about our worry won't make us better. If you count up all the hours you have spent worrying, it is in the thousands, probably 10,000s. If thinking could have got you out of this problem, it would have already. If you want to feel different, do something different.
Don't think about the blue monkey
It goes without saying that the answer to thinking too much isn't more thinking. Equally, the more we try not to think about something the more we do.
Golfers know this. If you try not to think about the water on the left, it is guaranteed that is where the ball will go. If I ask you not to think of a blue monkey, the first thing to come to mind is a blue monkey. It is very easy for people to get caught between worrying about stress and trying not to think about it.
So what do we do? We need to commit to distraction and engagement. We can't tell our mind not to think about something, we have to tell our mind what we want it to think about.
The best thing is engagement with the environment around us: people, activity, work, pleasure. Worry grows most often when we give it time and space. So we need to starve it of that. And each time our mind drifts back to the worry, we gently bring it back to where we are and what we are doing, best of all something fun.
The more we need it, the less we have to want it
The snooker player Steve Davis should go down as one of the most important psychologists ever. It isn't for the volume of his work, but for one thing he said.
When asked how does someone not freak out going into a World Snooker Championship Final, he said: "I've learned the art of playing as if it means nothing, when it means everything."
This is the mental skill of doublethink and we can learn how to do it. High performance athletes, performers, politicians all learn how.
Anxiety-provoking situations always feel like life and death. They feel overwhelming, threatening and are always immediate. And we are asking you to go into these situations more often!
So in the beginning people aren't going to feel confident doing something they haven't done before. But it is about trying to treat it lightly.
The anxiety will come. That's guaranteed. But notice it and get on with it. The more emotion we give the experience the harder it will be.
Treat it as if you don't care.
These are five traps that it is natural to fall into which result in anxiety lasting years rather than minutes. Have a go working in the opposite way. Test it out. . . then test it out again.
Dr Keith Gaynor is a senior clinical psychologist specialising in cognitive behavioural therapy in St John of God Outpatient Psychological Service, Stillorgan.