Suffering from anxiety? These 5 beliefs might be making your anxiety worse, says Caroline Foran, author of new book Owning it: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Living with Anxiety
A few years back, I suffered from anxiety to the point that I could no longer function; the mere task of leaving the house for bread and milk was too overwhelming to consider. It was a long and hard road back towards some semblance of balance, with plenty of pitfalls. Now that I’m out of the woods and living a life no longer defined by anxiety, I’ve looked back retrospectively and learned a thing or two about the things we tell ourselves that actually make things worse; all of which I chronicle in great detail in my new book Owning It: Your Bullshit Free Guide To Living With Anxiety. Take these on board and your own anxiety will diminish immeasurably; you can take my word for it.
Punishing yourself for some perceived weakness will only exacerbate things. It did for me.
That you are weak
When we’re anxious, our thoughts are heavily weighted towards the negative or the worst case scenario. We fail to see the positives for what they are and in psychological studies, it’s said that it can take as many as three positives to balance out one negative. For this we can blame the negativity bias; something we picked up along the road of evolution.
You’ll recognise it in your everyday life. For example, if you have a review with your boss at work and he or she lists 99 things you’ve done brilliantly but includes one area for improvement. It will be that one negative that will hold your focus. Sound familiar? In the same way, when we’re dealing with anxiety, we look at ourselves as though we’ve failed in some way, as though we’re weak when in reality, some of us feel things a lot more than the person next to us might.
There is no one elusive cure or magical pill that will allow you to live a life devoid of stress and anxiety
It’s nothing more than sensitivity and, from a more positive perspective, all it suggests is that your body is really good at communicating with you; it’s trying to tell you to take the step back or reassess your lifestyle or ease up on the caffeine, it’s not saying you are weak. Punishing yourself for some perceived weakness will only exacerbate things. It did for me.
Anxiety is something we must cure
Another surefire way to exacerbate your anxiety is to indulge in that desperate need to run a million miles away from it or ‘cure’ it. Now that I’ve written a book, so many times people ask me ‘so how did you cure it?’ But that’s precisely what the book is about. There is no one elusive cure or magical pill that will allow you to live a life devoid of stress and anxiety.
Trying to find one will only serve you worse in the long run and I say that from experience. Instead, we must learn the art of living with it or owning it. We must accept the inevitability of anxiety – it’s so normal and it’s a very basic function of the human body – and trust that we are more than capable of managing it. I panicked myself more and more by scrambling around the internet in search of some secret I was missing. When I eventually said ‘okay, so you’re anxious, let’s accept it. Let’s look at why you are anxious and address it with patience and understanding’ the ‘monster’ was immediately pacified.
Anxiety is bad for you
When watching a TED Talk by Professor Kelly McGonigal, I had another breakthrough. It’s not the presence of stress or anxiety in our bodies that’s bad for us, but how we perceive it as being bad for us. This is a theory that’s been proven in countless studies. Instead of trying to ‘cure it’ or rid it from our lives – impossible – what if we work on our perceptions of it? That’s something we can certainly do.
If you’re more understanding of feeling anxious – and more compassionate towards yourself – it will have less of a negative effect on your body. One particular study chronicled 30,000 adults in the US over an eight-year period. All the participants were asked how much stress they’d experienced in the previous year, as well as whether or not they believed that stress was harmful to their health.
when you choose to view your stress (or anxiety) response as helpful… you create the biology of courage and confidence
Then, rather grimly, the researchers used public death records to find out who’d kicked the bucket. People who had experienced a huge amount of stress the previous year had a 43 per cent increased chance of dying. But don’t freak out yet because that was only true for the people who also believed that stress was a terrible affliction. People who’d experienced a lot of stress but didn’t think it was harmful were even less likely to die than those who’d experienced little to no stress at all. That’s got to mean something, right? She says, “when you choose to view your stress (or anxiety) response as helpful – e.g. your body trying to tell you something or protect you or prepare you for a big presentation – you create the biology of courage and confidence.”
You don’t have a genuine reason to be suffering from anxiety
‘But you have a great life?’ ‘But you have everything going for you?’ ‘But you look fine?’ ‘But what reason have you got for falling apart?’ – all things that have been said to me, in so many words, at one point or another. This is infuriating and it fed my own belief that I didn’t have a genuine enough reason to be suffering from anxiety or ‘falling apart’. For me, it was merely a case of too much change at one time – prolonged stress as a result of moving house and changing jobs (to a job I didn’t like) which, over time, lead to an oversensitive nervous system, which eventually gave rise to full-blown anxiety.
Nobody died. There was no great danger in my vicinity and on paper, I had nothing to worry about. This made things worse – and I appreciate how stupid this must sound, but bear with me. It was the lack of dreadful things on which to pin the blame. Yes, I was experiencing prolonged stress, but I still had a roof over my head, food on the table, every conceivable convenience at my fingertips and all the support I could want. So what right had I to fall apart?
Though arguably more common among teens and those in their twenties, anxiety is also not age specific
For most anxiety-free onlookers, an emotional breakdown is understandable and totally justified for someone who has gone through something truly awful, but my inner turmoil only got worse when faced with the statements and questions above. I couldn’t answer them, and I felt awful for my inability to just snap out of it, given how good things should have been. But that’s precisely where we need to cut the crap: our contemporary experience of anxiety is not dependent on something terrible that threatens our survival, nor is it a members-only club for people who’ve been dragged through the emotional trenches.
Though arguably more common among teens and those in their twenties, anxiety is also not age specific. Sure, awful life events will certainly throw a bad bout of stress and anxiety right in your face, but even the most fortunate among us can find ourselves floored by a tsunami of fear and worry. Yes, there will always be someone worse off and if that kind of perspective improves your feelings of anxiety then great, but remember this: it’s all relative. You feel like crap. What you certainly don’t need is the added feeling that you have no right to feel crap.
my anxiety now works for me rather than against me
Even though we’ve evolved significantly in certain ways, our brains – and our bodies – react to stress in the same way they did when we were chasing down hyenas in the wild for our Sunday roast, and that’s arguably where evolution (our nervous systems have been evolving for 600 million years) needs to hurry the f*ck up. Your brain just can’t tell the difference between running away from Freddy Krueger and a boss or a bully whose footsteps make you shudder in fear, nor can it tell if you’re rich or on the breadline. It doesn’t need specifics about what the threat is, it just produces the necessary hormones for your survival, regardless of what’s going on. It’s still the same brain that reacts in all cases.
You’re always going to feel this way
This was the hardest one to shake for me, and if I could go back in time and reassure myself that everything is fleeting and nothing is forever – though it certainly can feel like it sometimes – I would have felt heaps better. It was this fear that I was always going to struggle and be defined by anxiety and find everything difficult that exacerbated my worry tenfold. But I did the necessary work (which required patience and time), I still do the necessary work (even on good days), and my anxiety now works for me rather than against me. I do feel it sometimes – rarely – but I know it will pass. Yours will too.
Caroline Foran is a Dublin-based health and beauty journalist and author of Owning it: Your Bullsh*t Free Guide To Living With Anxiety. Caroline, who has previously suffered from acute anxiety, has worked tirelessly with some of the best mental health experts to create a no-frills, practical guide that will help others who face the same issues. She believes that this whole idea of ‘curing’ your anxiety so that you never have to feel it again – which plenty of books out there claim to do, preying on your vulnerability – only serves to make you feel worse in the long run. And so this book focuses on changing your relationship with anxiety.
Owning it: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Living with Anxiety (Hachette) will be available from Amazon for £6.99 From May 11th.