Whether it’s a racing heart and sweaty palms before a big meeting, an irrational reluctance to walk into a party, or a strong sense of doom before stepping on to a flight, we’ve all experienced anxiety at some point in our lives.
But an increasing number of people find the palpitations, shortness of breath, tears and trembling too overwhelming and too frequent. Such are the stresses of modern life that many doctors fear we are facing an anxiety epidemic, with more than eight million cases being reported each year in the UK alone.
Anxiety is an essential tool designed to protect us from danger. But these days it is being too often triggered by situations that are emotionally challenging rather than truly life-threatening.
We would know. As a married couple, we’ve been working together for 25 years. As therapists, we’ve trained in numerous psychology and psychotherapy practices and we have worked with thousands of clients to overcome their anxiety disorders.
It is true to say we’ve seen every possible manifestation of anxiety – from quietly destructive to dramatically debilitating. And we’ve established a simple process that really can help.
Whether your anxiety is persistent, frequent, occasional or completely overwhelming, you really can turn your circumstances around and start to get better. We can help you break the anxiety-inducing habits you might have been carrying around for decades, and help you create new ways of thinking that we are confident will transform your life.
THE KEY TO FINDING YOUR ANXIETY TRIGGERS
Over the past 25 years, we have seen anxiety manifest itself in so many different ways. But we have come to understand that there is always a trigger – or several triggers – that flick an individual’s anxiety switch.
To get on top of your anxiety, you need to first locate those triggers and then challenge them. This will address the associated thoughts and beliefs that are very likely to be feeding your problem. Our thoughts create our feelings. Our feelings create our actions. And our actions define our lives.
The best way to find your triggers is to note down your anxiety episodes in a notebook or on your phone – and what you think might have caused them. The process itself can help provide a positive distraction that can ease symptoms. Look out for clues.
We all inadvertently pick up behaviours or beliefs from parents or friends. Sometimes anxious thoughts can build up over time in response to an accident, abuse, an episode of bullying, or bad parenting. You might spot some trigger situations that you can change – perhaps avoiding toxic friends, or even switching jobs. Some might take a little time, and others (such as a vindictive mother-in-law) you might be stuck with.
However, we have discovered that whatever the trigger, you CAN work to change your response from negative and stressful to more positive. So even if you can’t control the events around you, you absolutely can control how you choose to deal with them. First, you need to question the way you have been interpreting your triggers. Could your perception be flawed or inaccurate? Is there a positive alternative perspective?
Stop panic attacks in their tracks
In our experience, panic attacks are never random and they can be overcome.
It really helps to think of a panic attack as the protective response it is designed to evoke. Your body is just trying to protect you.
If you find yourself feeling vulnerable, you can sometimes head off anxiety by immediately hunting for memories and images of a time when you laughed uncontrollably. It sounds ridiculously simple, but this will help to distract your mind. If anxiety persists, concentrate on steadying your breathing, and imagine that everything around you has gone into slow motion.
Focus first on sitting comfortably, then think about what you would like for dinner or what you’ll watch on TV that evening.
Finally, force yourself to socialise: smile and seek out conversation. It may be hard at first, but you’ll find that occupying yourself is much easier than worrying about the onset of panicky thoughts.
We worked with a famous pop star who was extremely confident and outgoing, but who had become very anxious about the prospect of overseas touring. When we asked him to go through a timeline of stressful or difficult events in his life, two stood out. He’d suffered an allergic reaction to nuts when on holiday aged six, and aged nine he’d got stuck in a cave when swimming with his family in Greece. We were able to show him that these were isolated incidents. They were unlikely to recur if he had his allergy medicine nearby, only went swimming in safe environments, and accepted that, as an adult, his risk was minimal.
He actually became quite emotional at finally obtaining an explanation for – and relief – from his constant nagging anxiety. This shows how something as simple as altering your perspective is the best way to set yourself free.
DIAL DOWN THE WORRY
When you find yourself starting to worry, don’t try to stop (this could make things worse), but make a mental note to focus on the worry properly during your allocated ‘worry time’.
Very often, you will find that the concern no longer warrants your time when you do come to reconsider it. If not, ask yourself: ‘Is this problem solvable?’ If it is, decide on a strategy to solve it, and stick to that strategy.
Another useful technique is to make a list of your worries. This takes the worry out of your mind and puts it firmly on paper. Studies show that 85 per cent of what people worry about never happens, and for the 15 per cent that does happen, in 79 per cent of those cases, people discovered they could handle the problem better than they expected. Keep hold of your lists – when you look back at them you will probably notice how few of your fears actually came to light.
USE A WORRY BUTTON
The section of our brain that handles stress and worry has the common sense of an infant and if you can’t stop an infant’s tantrum by applying logic, distraction will often work. So try pressing your ‘worry button’. Imagine that you have a button in the centre of your palm. Think of your main worry and press your button.
As you press it, breathe in to the count of three. As you count one, visualise the colour red; as you count two, see the colour blue; and as you count three, see the colour green. Then exhale and completely let go of anything in your mind. Essentially, this distracts you from other thoughts. But the colours are key too. Red or black are usually seen as stressful colours, so starting with red and changing it to a calm blue and then green also assists in relieving stress.
The people around you can also greatly affect how you feel. If you have a friend who is always anxious, they could make your worrying worse. If one of your parents is or was an over-worrier, there’s every chance you could have inherited the trait. Ask yourself: ‘Did over-worrying enhance my parent’s life?’ If not, why not? Next time you catch yourself worrying, try reminding yourself: ‘I am fine – this is not my worry, it’s my parent’s.’ If there was a time in your life when a series of things went wrong, you might easily find yourself worrying that things will go wrong again in the future.
In cases like these, we’ve found it can be really useful to take a look at just how much has gone right in your life (the exams you’ve passed, the friends you’ve made).
From clowns to spiders – it’s easy to overcome phobias
Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder, affecting about ten million people in the UK. Whether your trigger is spiders or lifts, air travel, moths or birds, you’ll know this as a real sense of fear that far outweighs any likely danger your trigger could logically present.
We are probably best known for our success in treating dozens of phobias and we have consistently helped people overcome their fears of anything from water, frogs, snakes, spiders, mice, small spaces, heights, dentists, clowns – and even Simon Cowell.
We’ve discovered that most phobias are picked up in childhood and the trigger is repeatedly evaluated from a child’s perspective. Even though as an adult you might know your phobia is ridiculous, you can’t help behaving like the child who created the phobia in the first place.
The great news is that whatever your phobia, you can overcome it – and fast. First, ask yourself whether your behaviour is acceptable in the grown-up world. Do you scream when you see spiders? Do you flatly refuse to see a dentist, even when you’ve got toothache?
When you are willing to accept that your behaviour is incorrect, you are ready to start making positive changes.
Next, try to think back to how and when your phobia might have been created. Perhaps you had a bad experience with a dentist as a child, or you watched a scary movie about snakes or sharks.
Remember the feelings you experienced at the time and ask yourself whether and how you may have misinterpreted the situation. Do you unfairly misjudge whatever you are phobic to, based on your childhood perspective?
Did the spider/snake/moth or bird actually do anything to harm you? Did it target you? Just because one dentist hurt or embarrassed you, does that mean all dentists are cruel and thoughtless? Are you still unwittingly stuck in that child’s frame of mind? Now look for contrary evidence to prove that you misjudged the situation – it’s time to think like the adult you are.
Aeroplanes can’t be blamed for the turbulence that frightened you, house spiders DO NOT attack humans – they will always try to run. They are also virtually blind and very delicate.
If you find this bit difficult and you struggle to see your fear from any other perspective, ask a trusted friend to suggest a few more balanced alternatives. The aim is to get you to see the situation for what it really was and not for how it might have felt at that time.
Finally, agree to stop being a victim of the item or object based on all the evidence you’ve pulled together. We can cure someone of a phobia in less than an hour, but you might need a little longer to create and confirm new positive associations in your mind.
Build your confidence gradually. Have a few extra lessons if you have a fear of driving, accompany a friend to the dentist before booking your own appointment, look through pictures of spiders while running through all the contrary evidence in your mind.
It can help to rehearse or visualise yourself interacting with the object of your phobia and imagining everything going well.
You have got a journey ahead of you and every journey starts with one small step. Doing one small thing you couldn’t do yesterday will make you realise you are OK, you are safe, and you can build on that tomorrow.
Try keeping a notebook by your bed and getting into the habit of writing down one great thing that happened that day, every day, before you fall asleep. This is a good way to start to retrain those negative thought patterns.
DO YOU REALLY HATE PARTIES?
Lots of people get anxious about social occasions, but you can build resilience through having a ‘dummy run’ before you go.
Close your eyes and visualise yourself walking into a crowded room and interacting (brilliantly!) with an engaged group of friends.
It might sound odd but your brain really cannot tell the difference between something you have actually done and something you have strongly visualised or rehearsed, so doing this a number of times will give your brain the message that you have already done it, and that it went really well.
Another clever pre-party trick is to give a big sigh (inhale deeply then exhale loudly, dropping your shoulders as you do so) which cleverly signals to your brain and body that the onerous task has been completed. Try picturing the event and score your fear out of ten.
Then, while holding that picture in your mind’s eye, sigh deeply. Then sigh again, allowing your shoulders to drop and relax, and then again, sinking into your seat. Keep sighing until your fear about the event is reduced.
STOP RELYING ON DOCTOR GOOGLE
We all worry about our health from time to time but if illness dominates your thoughts, you could be at risk of health anxiety or cyberchondria (a tendency to look up symptoms on the internet). This can be a tough form of anxiety to crack. But it helps to know that health anxiety is usually triggered (and passed on) by an overprotective parent who might have worried about health when you were young and rewarded you with attention when you were ill. It might be caused by a personal experience of a serious health concern or illness.
So look for your trigger, and think about how you started to become anxious about your health. Think rationally do those reasons still apply? How are you different now from the person you were then? We were able to change the life of one woman who was tormented by the fear that every rash, sniff, cough or headache meant she would die. She came to us in desperation because her marriage was suffering and she’d started to see symptoms of health anxiety in her daughter too. We tracked her trigger to the death of her beloved grandfather when she was 12 years old.
In the 20 years that she’d tried to come to terms with this, she’d somehow lost sight of the fact that he was a heavy smoker and died, aged 76, of lung cancer. We were able to help her see that cigarettes were to be feared, not death itself, and as a non-smoker her risk was very slight. Her relief was palpable.
If you have even slight anxieties about health, it’s a good idea to avoid spending time with people who talk about health, and to try to seek out positives. Instead of Googling your ailments, try researching people who have survived the illnesses that concern you most.
This feature is not a substitute for medical or psychological intervention, nor is the content intended to replace therapy, or medical help or advice.