People who have lived with anxiety for long periods can become more anxious about their own responses to what they find triggering than the triggers themselves: anxious about anxiety. It doesn't have to be this way, writes Abi Crossland-Otter.
Before I begin, I would like to emphasise that this article is not intended to suggest that any of our thoughts, feelings, emotions or reactions aren't valid. They are. It has been demonstrated that, unfortunately, it comes naturally (unconsciously even) to our minds to think negatively; thinking positively, on the other hand, requires a conscious effort.
What if I told you you are not afraid of that thing or person, but of your own thoughts and reactions in relation to that thing or person?
Looking at things from an evolutionary perspective can explain why our brains are wired to favour negative emotions and be particularly vulnerable to fear as focusing on the worse case scenario was a survival mechanism that protected our ancestors from danger and threat.
In 2020, however, fear and negativity is more often a self-limiting reaction that no longer serves us. But this negative bias can be counteracted.
So, whilst you are entitled to feel sad when you receive rejection, feel angry when someone lets you down, or fearful when trying something new, if you're finding yourself overwhelmed by unhelpful, negative thoughts, or fettered by fear, the following may offer a helpful new way of looking at things.
Reactions vs Reality
Think of something that instills fear in you... What if I told you that you are not afraid of that thing or person, but of your own thoughts and reactions in relation to that thing or person? That you are merely afraid of your own thoughts.
This is what is suggested in a 'Fearless Living' meditation I recently listened to. Facing your fearful feelings brings them to an end, because if you proceed whilst being afraid, you'll see that all that has been scaring you is your apprehension of fear: the anticipation of negative thoughts or reactions. And this realisation can set you free of fear.
Fear of Fear
The other day I experienced just this. I was sitting in the car about to go into the cinema and watch a film, when this wave of anxiety came over me. But instead of becoming that anxiety and reacting to all the fearful thoughts, I took a moment to observe what was really going on in my head. I was not afraid of going to the cinema; I am not afraid of a dark room full of people enjoying a film, I'm afraid of the thoughts and reactions that might arise when I am in said room.
Such is often the way with people who have had anxiety for so long: we are no longer anxious about actual things/ places/ people, but we are anxious about our own responses. Anxious about anxiety. Fearful of the fear.
Having made this realisation, and in turn given my fear and negativity nothing to feed on, I entered the cinema with a pleasantly withered sense of fear and negativity, and simply enjoyed the film.
The same can be said of anything conjuring negative emotions or thoughts within you. Think of something that makes you feel bad about yourself; think of something that causes you stress, anger, disappointment.
Is the issue rooted externally in the circumstance, or internally, in your reaction?
With this new perspective we can see how it may not be the events in our lives that cause us negativity or fear, but how we deal with them. Our reactions are often unintelligent mechanical responses, rather than considered choices.
The Three Options
We have three options when negative thoughts arise:
- Repress, suppress, ignore.
This is said to be problematic not because it doesn't address the discomforting thoughts, but because avoiding thoughts inadvertently gives them more power.
- Overthink, fixate, try to change.
This option is situated at the opposite end of the spectrum to option number one. Whilst you are trying to address these problematic thoughts, fixating on them can bring them to life and may thereby give them permission to take control.
Clearly there is a fine balance to be met here, and that's where option number three comes in.
- Acknowledge but do not react.
As popularised in meditation and mindfulness, option three, where you simply observe negative thoughts and feelings without judgement, could be your saviour. This approach allows us to be in quiet command as we watch our thoughts passing through our mind like leaves drifting on a stream.
In the last few decades it has been discovered that our brains are not fixed by the time we reach adulthood, but continually possess the potential to grow and change, depending on what we do. Consequently, new neural pathways in our brain are being built when we do or think something repeatedly. The good news here, then, is that due to the inherent changeability of neural plasticity, these negative pathways that may have been created over time can be reversed and new, more positive ones built in their place.
Abi Crossland-Otter is a trainee counsellor with lived experience of anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:
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