With everything that is going on in the world at present, anxiety could feel like a natural, even inevitable, response. But there is nothing inevitable about it; there is a key thinking pattern involved in anxiety, often called catastrophe thinking, and there are simple ways to learn to change it. Feeling anxious generally involves telling yourself a horror story about your future ….. usually the worst possible outcome and then some! Our brain goes something like this; if I focus on the worst thing that can happen, I’ll be prepared for it, and if something better happens, I’ll feel relieved and pleased. And if I keep repeating this, I will always be prepared.
But there are several reasons why that doesn’t work:
- None of us know what will happen in the future. When we predict the future it’s a guess, a story that we are telling ourselves. However, by focusing only on the worst thing that could happen, our brain ends up believing that this is the truth, not just one of many possibilities, so you are not giving it accurate information.
- It’s not even the most likely outcome. Mostly you are choosing the possible or the very unlikely, rather than the probable. 90% of what you worry about never happens!
- You scare yourself, and turn on the fight or flight response. But since this story is about the future, there is nothing to run from or fight. Instead, the chemicals associated with the inappropriate fight or flight response just stop us from thinking straight or making good clear decisions, stop our immune system from working properly, and create all the symptoms of anxiety. And if you repeat the same horror story time after time in your mind, you get stuck in this state.
- It’s the story that creates the anxiety, not the event. Human beings are really good at problem solving. People are often surprised to find, when something they fear actually happens, that they rise to the occasion and find the inner resources to deal with it. They may even become stronger, happier, and more resilient people as a result. We miss this ending out of our horror stories!
What you can do to change this pattern
Start noticing the stories you are telling yourself, recognise them as stories rather than the truth, and ask yourself, ’Is it helping me to focus on this?’
If the answer is no, here are some ways to learn to tell yourself more useful stories;
- Start by remembering times in the past when you successfully resolved a challenging situation. What did you do? How did that feel? Notice how creative we can be in these situations.
- Don’t allow yourself to tell the same story more than once. Interrupt the repetitive cycling round by insisting that you change it each time.
- Deliberately tell yourself as many different stories about what could happen as you can. Use your creativity! Include ones where everything goes really well, and ones with good and difficult things mixed together, to balance your original “worst case” scenario.
- Make sure every story you tell has a successful outcome, in which you rise to the occasion, find the inner resources to handle it well, and move on to a happy life. Go far into the future if you need to: ‘What will I feel like in 10 years time?’ Psychologists talk about post traumatic growth; the idea that difficult experiences can be a powerful positive impetus to move forwards and grow.
- But most of all, keep coming back into the present. Our amazing ability to predict the future and problem solve can be very useful, but it’s important to come back to the present and remember that the future doesn’t actually exist! My favourite way of doing this is to look at a tree: