De-mystifying anxiety

Anxiety is a common problem but fortunately, it can be one that is resolved easier than someone who experiences it may think.

Psychoeducation can be an effective tool in therapy and it has proven to be very effective for people who experience anxiety. Once the person knows what the anxiety response it, they’re on the path to resolving it, ideally very quickly. 

For anxiety to exist, three things need to be in place at the same time:

    1. We're overestimating a threat.

    2. We're underestimating our ability to cope with the threat.

    3. We're underestimating the likelihood of receiving support in the face of the threat. 

All three things need to be in place for you to feel anxious. If any one of those three things were missing, you wouldn't feel anxious, you'd just feel worried or concerned.

So, if you didn't overestimate the threat but still underestimated your ability to cope and underestimated the likelihood of receiving support, you wouldn't feel anxious. If you overestimated the threat and underestimated the likelihood of receiving support but didn't underestimate your ability to cope, you wouldn't feel anxious. If you overestimated the threat, underestimated your ability to cope but believed you would get adequate support, you wouldn't feel anxious. 

An anxious response

The response itself originates from the part of the brain called the amygdala. This part can be triggered in two ways, directly or from the cortex. Amygdala-based anxiety occurs when you’ve been traumatised and make associations with the traumatic event. This means if a piece of music was associated with the traumatic event when you hear that music, the chance of reliving the trauma is high. You can associate any type of stimulus with the traumatic event and this means anything can be a trigger.

Cortical based anxiety occurs when the amygdala hasn’t been directly triggered by an association but instead you have thoughts that amount to a conclusion that you should be afraid. The amygdala notices this and starts taking notice. You can then associate things to the fear so that the amygdala has a higher chance of being triggered by these associations next time.

What makes this type of anxiety response more definite is that you’re likely to have anxiety-provoking thoughts, so in that situation, you’re almost binding yourself to feeling anxiety because both types of anxiety are being triggered. 

How to become anxiety-free

The path to an anxiety-free life includes exposure, self-regulation and cognitive restructuring. 

Exposure 

Pick an event or situation that you usually avoid and encourage yourself to experience it. You will have feelings of anxiety, but you don’t have to respond to these feelings in the same way as you used to.

Once you get used to sitting with the uncomfortable emotions, the emotional response will change. This is retraining your brain to be comfortable with the triggers because the triggers aren’t fear-inducing by themselves.

If the thought of using this exposure technique is overwhelming, see if you can grade the situations you feel anxious in and try this out on the one where you have the least anxious response. Once you’ve tried it with that, you may find it easier to try it with situations that you find a lot more challenging. 

Calm woman by window

Self-regulation

You can have a typical anxiety response but ‘talk yourself down’ by intentional actions like changing your breathing and relaxing your body. Studies have shown that you can’t be relaxed and anxious at the same time.

Breathing has proven effective in relaxing your body or you can do body scans by focusing on certain muscles and tensing them, then relaxing them until your whole body is relaxed.

Mindfulness exercises are good examples of self-regulation. Mindfulness usually includes being present in the moment and not becoming wrapped up in your thoughts. It also means experiencing the now without a sense of judgement.

Cognitive restructuring

This involves educating your brain about why your body is responding the way it is. You could tell yourself it’s just a fight/flight/freeze response that’s being triggered unnecessarily. Those emergency measures should only be active when you’re in danger. Feeling scared is not an indication that you are actually in danger but if you have fearful sensations, your body will put you into the fight, flight or freeze mode. This has the knock-on effect of probably leading you to act as if you are in danger. 

If the process of exposure, self-regulation and cognitive restructuring seems too daunting to try all at once, you can start with the cognitive restructuring element. Remind yourself of what anxiety actually is - overestimation of threat, underestimation of ability to cope, underestimation of likelihood of receiving support.

You may find it easy to recall times when you overestimated a threat in the past but when the event happened, it was totally risk-free. You may recall other times when something didn't go to plan but you found yourself being able to cope or receiving support. Reminding yourself of these three types of memory in advance may dampen the intensity of the anxiety response if you're thinking about something anxiety-provoking in the future.  

You may not feel completely comfortable but instead of feeling anxiety, you may feel concerned or worried. If you're feeling concerned or worried, instead of avoidance, you're much more likely to plan ahead to increase the chances of securing the outcome you want. 

I hope this information has been of some use. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Byron Athene

I am a qualified counselling psychotherapist, certified mindset coach and writer. I have been interested in the fields of philosophy and psychology since 1991 and am able to incorporate what I've learnt into my practice to ensure our sessions will be as effective and impactful as possible.… Read more

Written by Byron Athene

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