Can't switch off your feelings of anxiety?
Are you stuck in a negative thought loop or beating yourself up about a mistake you’ve made? Why can’t you switch it off? You thought you were over it, but it just keeps popping up.
This article will explore why our brain attaches itself to the bad stuff and replays it over and over, looking at why the brain seems to forget all about the good stuff that happens in our lives.
Why do we feel anxious?
We all feel anxious from time to time; it is a very natural and normal feeling to have. Anxiety can help to keep us and our loved ones safe. It can fuel us to make changes and keep us motivated. However, when anxiety becomes a constant state of being, keeps us awake at night, or stops us from doing things, this is when it is no longer serving us in a healthy way.
Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t want to keep us happy, it wants to make sure we are safe. Safety is our brain’s number one priority! It is always scanning for threats; you might feel relaxed but somewhere in the background our brain is ready to take action if it needs to. Our brain will also remember the bad, scary, or harmful experiences over the good, joyful, or beautiful experiences. It uses these memories to help it look for clues of possible dangers in our day-to-day lives. This is called the ‘negativity bias’.
We have inherited the negativity bias from our prehistoric ancestors who dealt with life-or-death situations every day. They constantly had to watch for cavemen who might want to kill them or a carnivore who might want to eat them. Switching off even for a moment could lead to their death. They had to remember and learn from all the near misses to keep them safe. Good experiences didn’t provide such life-saving information and the brain would acknowledge them and quickly move back to looking for more threats.
We might not be under threat from carnivorous beasts anymore but to our brain, the negative feedback we receive or perceive from people or situations can feel just as threatening. Even the ping of another email or the notification of a WhatsApp message can feel like a threat. Think of the last appraisal you had at work or report you received from college — the one with nine great points and one not-so-great point. Which one do you remember the most? The not-so-great one!
Yes, it’s helpful to know our areas for improvement and use that information as a goal to work towards. However, when anxiety is our overwhelming state, we can overestimate the bad and underestimate the good. When we’re anxious we forget all about our innate strengths and our resources for coping. Often, we hear a critical voice telling us we are not good enough and there is no point in trying. It is safer to stay in our cave and block out the world.
Can I change my anxious brain?
The good news is we can update the way our brain thinks. We can change our negative thought patterns and encourage our brains to use a different route. It will take time, patience, and self-compassion to learn a new way of thinking. You may not be able to get rid of the negative thoughts and worries but you may find you spend less time with them or can approach them differently.
An in-the-moment exercise to help shift the perspective is to acknowledge your negative thoughts and thank your brain for doing its job of keeping you safe. Just this small step, of offering yourself compassion and acknowledging what’s happening can give you enough distance to open up some curiosity.
Is this something I really need to worry about? Is this my anxious brain applying something from my history that doesn’t exist now? Being curious can help you to explore your thoughts using current information and not outdated information. Thank your anxiety for keeping you safe but let it know you’ve got it from here.
If you have more time, a helpful exercise can be to briefly write down your anxious thoughts or worries and then spend some time writing down in detail a positive experience you’ve had:
- Maybe detailing the great points you got in that appraisal.
- Think of a time a time that you’ve spent with a loved one or friend where you felt happy or at ease.
- A time you felt energised after solving a problem or helping someone.
Really spend some time sitting with the feelings those experiences bring up for you. Write down the feelings and if you’re struggling to name the feelings looking at something like a feelings wheel can be really helpful.
Once you’ve done this return to your anxious thought and see how you feel about it now. You may find that you have a different perspective or an idea about how you can take steps forward with it. You might notice that you have the resources within you to put it to rest or you might find you’d like some support with it.
Finding a reliable person you can trust is key if you feel you’d like some more support. This could be a good friend or you might prefer someone impartial; maybe a counsellor. A counsellor can give you an outlet to talk freely about your feelings, allowing you to process them at your own pace and find a way forward that feels right for you. Feel free to visit my profile for more information.