How we can begin to understand anxiety

Most of us experience anxiety from time to time. When anxiety occurs all that we want is for the feelings to go away. At times, mounting anxiety can feel intolerable and at other times we might just feel the ‘edge’ of an anxious feeling. What is anxiety? What causes it and importantly, what can we do about it? 


What is anxiety?

Anxiety could be described differently by everyone. For me, I feel a breathless sensation in my chest and a tightness, almost my like breathing is restricted. I might get tingling in my hands and a feeling of restlessness throughout my body. 

I usually ask what my client’s anxiety feels like to them and where they most feel the sensations in their body. Some describe the sensations of anxiety as a tightness in their chest, a fluttering in their stomach, a heaviness in their shoulders or heat in their head. It can be described in many different ways. Have a think now how anxiety feels for you. 

Many people are not entirely certain what is causing the feelings of anxiety. There might be emotions of fear, nervousness or that we feel worried about something. When we dig deeper, we can begin to reflect on what the thoughts are that the client might be having. 

What is the difference between worry and anxiety? 

There are a few things that can tell us the difference between anxiety and worry.

When we begin to pay attention, we might notice that anxiety is usually felt in the body in various places. We may not have direct thoughts connected to the anxiety. The anxiety might come on at specific times, going into work on a Monday morning for instance. 

Worry is usually having rational thoughts about an event coming up or, for instance, if we miss the train to work, we worry that we are going to be late. In these examples the worry passes once the event has passed. 

Worry can often spur us into action and doing something proactive about our concerns and worries can help to ease the thoughts and fears. For instance, if we are worrying about an unpaid bill, we might look at ways that we can pay it. If we are worrying about an upcoming exam the worry will spur us into studying.

We might describe anxiety as a feeling of alarm as though something unknown and unseen is about to turn up unexpectedly. This might have us constantly on edge, expecting the worst event imaginable (and we do imagine many things when we are anxious!) 

Therapy and managing anxiety

In therapy we can look at how to manage anxiety through a series of techniques, but it is also often useful to look at our life experiences to get to the root of what is causing our anxiety. Telling our story can bring to light many experiences and things that we haven’t thought of in years. There can be many ‘aha’ moments where we begin to understand ourselves, and the anxiety, much better. Then we can really do something to change things.

Here we look at anxiety and how our thoughts and beliefs are interconnected through the image of a cake. 

Think of a cake with three layers.

The first layer might be the thoughts that we have daily. What we often do not realise is that we do not have to believe those thoughts and that we can often have thoughts where we are unkind to ourselves.

These thoughts effect our emotions which are also in that top layer of cake. For example, you might have the thought that your friends have not called in a while there for that means that they do not like you.

The feelings that you experience then might be sadness, anger, annoyance, irritation. But you see, that was just a thought. Was it true? Probably not. You find out later that one friend has had an exam, the other has been busy at work, etc. It is like there is an internal bully telling you these things to make you feel bad about yourself. 

The trick here is to recognise your internal bully and notice how that voice makes you feel. We do not often tell ourselves how well we are doing. We do not often give ourselves a high five! Yet, we will congratulate others and tell our loved ones that they are doing an excellent job and how proud we are of them.

The second layer of the cake are our rules and beliefs about ourselves and how we ‘should’ live our lives. These rules for living and our beliefs are the messages that we grew up with that became reinforced by the people around us. 

For example, if you grew up in a family where to show emotions mean that you are a weak person and that you ‘just need to get on with things’ then this is what you will believe, and these will become your rigid rules for living your life by.

These rules and beliefs affect the top layer of the cake – the thoughts and emotions. What might happen next is if your rules for living are triggered, say you split up with your girlfriend and feel deeply sad about the break up, then you might have thoughts such as, “what’s wrong with me? I just need to get on with my life. I’m so weak for feeling this way.” This might create anxiety about your situation and yourself. 
The third layer of the cake is about our core beliefs – what we believe about ourselves. This can be unconscious and will affect the second and first layer of the cake. This is how all of this may present as anxiety: 

A client may have a deep core belief that the world is unsafe and that they are not safe. This may, for example, come from a childhood where their home life was unstable in some way or they felt unloved as a child. This deep belief influences their rules for living (usually the shoulds and musts) “I must plan ahead. I must never upset anyone. I must never take risks...” In turn this deep belief affects their thoughts and emotions. “My friend is upset with me. I must have done something wrong.” Without knowing why their friend hasn’t called the client’s thinking has created great upset and sadness for themselves. 

So, in the cake example you can trace how your deep beliefs and rules for living about yourself can trigger anxiety without really knowing where it has all come from.

How therapy can help

A therapist can help you to uncover your core beliefs and rigid rules for living and in this way you can get to work on your anxiety. Become aware of your self talk today. Notice the things that you say to yourself each day and how that makes you feel. Awareness is the very first step in helping you on the road to become anxiety free. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a member of BACP with a level 7, PGdip in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am qualified to work with many issues which include but are not limited to: emotional abuse, relationships, trauma, anxiety, substance mis-use, developmental trauma, and attachment issues.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals