There are lots of reasons why we get anxious; sometimes it’s short-term, like nerves before taking an exam, or feeling anxious before having an operation. Other times something triggers anxiety and it doesn’t go away, in fact it gets worse, and seems to take over our life. An unexpected, deeply personal event, or ‘trauma’ such as the death of a friend or close family member, losing your job, a miscarriage, the end of a relationship, can make us feel we have no control over what is happening to us and plunge us without warning into anxiety.
Once our certainties about life have been shaken up, quite often any other difficulties which come along seem to reinforce our anxious state, and make everyday tasks which we used to cope with, without thought or worry, seem like impossible mountains to climb now. We can move from a relaxed, happy attitude to life, to feeling like a nervous wreck, in a matter of weeks, and it’s really difficult to ‘pull yourself together’ without good advice and support.
Feeling anxious also puts pressure on our relationships, so it is unfortunate, but true, that at the time we most need our loved ones, our anxious behaviour, and the way we show it, through being stressed, or ‘unreasonable’, or simply retreating from our social life, also pushes away those who love us, and we can find ourselves also coping with the loss, or distress of a partner, just when we need support the most. Young men, in particular, find it difficult to admit that they can’t cope, and frequently drown their anxiety in alcohol, get into fights with their friends, fall out with girlfriends, and generally behave in a way which nobody, apart from their mum and dad, could guess is the result of acute anxiety and fear of not coping with their feelings.
We show our anxiety in three main ways. First, our physical reactions: muscle tension, racing heart, light-headedness, inability to sleep, or concentrate. Second, in our negative thoughts and feelings: overestimating risk, ‘catastrophising’, worrying about the most simple tasks. Third, in how we behave: avoiding situations which make us anxious, trying to do everything perfectly, getting upset about small things, procrastinating, using alcohol to ‘damp down’ our worries, and then when we can’t sleep, having too much caffeine to stay awake……
Everyone suffers with anxiety differently, and tries to survive it the best they can, but there is research evidence on what helps us get better most effectively. Going to see your GP and talking about how you feel is definitely the first step. Your GP is the expert about what medication may help, and initially at least, a combination of medication and ‘talking therapy’, ie counselling, is now thought to be the best combination to get you feeling better. There is evidence that CBT; cognitive behavioural therapy, is an effective form of counselling for anxiety, and I use some of its techniques with my own clients, but I think there is more to relieving anxiety than just trying to change thoughts and behaviours. How we feel about ourselves, how much we value ourselves, is also key, I think to getting better. Those of us who have strong personal boundaries seem to be more resilient, and to cope better with anxiety. I will write about how we can ‘work on our boundaries’ in my next post.