What Happens When We’re Anxious?
Our ability to think, reflect and use our imagination separates us from most other species on the planet. Thinking is an amazing gift. It enables us to dream, plan and prepare, write books, and produce fabulous pieces of art. But if you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you’ll know our minds can also cause distress, overwhelm, and panic.
When we get anxious, our bodies release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This is a physiological response. It gets us ready for ‘fight or flight’ so we can defend ourselves against predators or flee a dangerous situation. When we’re anxious, there’s a dramatic shift in our thinking too. Most of us aren’t even aware it’s happening.
The Cognitive Tunnel
As soon as you begin to feel anxious for any reason your thinking narrows, creating a cognitive tunnel that forces you to focus on the threat. This is a very powerful response and it’s completely out of our control. It’s just how our brains are wired, and for a long time, it was vital for survival.
Imagine hearing footsteps walking closely behind you on a dark, foggy night. For your safety, it’s important to give this your full attention. However, when you feel anxious in an exam, and you think ‘I’m going to fail’, it’s not useful to focus on that thought. Instead, you need to recall the information you’ve learned for the exam so you can answer the questions. In this scenario, there’s no benefit to having your thinking narrowed.
Catastrophic thinking is another common element of anxiety. When we’re anxious we experience more threat-based thoughts and are only able to think about worst-case scenarios.
Usually, the aim of catastrophic thinking is to be well prepared and avoid bad things happening. People with anxiety will often say when things go wrong, they manage the situation well. It’s not that they can’t cope, it’s that they’re trying to avoid the situation in the first place. However, the effort they put into avoiding the bad stuff, and the anxious thinking this creates, causes them to feel very unhappy. Essentially, bad stuff will in life happen whether we worry about it or not and constantly dress rehearsing tragedy can be exhausting.
What to Do When Your Thoughts Are Distorted
We will never be free of distorted, anxious thoughts, but we can learn to manage them. We need to focus on building tolerance, so we can accept anxiety when it shows up and ride the wave until it’s over. If you try to avoid anxiety completely you will only experience more of it. Here are some strategies you can try:
1. Anxiety pushes us to overthink which can lead to even more anxious thoughts. To avoid spiralling, try to work with your physiology. When you’re anxious your blood pressure increases. A calm body creates a calm mind, so things like meditation and soothing rhythm breathing can be helpful. Exercise is also a good idea as it helps rid the body of adrenaline which fuels anxiety and anxious thoughts.
2. When an anxious thought enters your mind, name it. Saying ‘I am anxious’ softens the emotion and makes it more manageable.
3. Building cognitive flexibility is one of the best ways to tackle catastrophic thinking. When a worst-case scenario enters your mind, write down five alternative possible outcomes. Catastrophic thinking is often future based, so staying in the moment and focussing on what you know to be true can be helpful.
4. Engage less with hypothetical thinking. It hasn’t happened and it might never happen. Remember every ‘what if’ leads to another, so it’s important to step away from the ‘what if’ worry cycle.
5. What we resist persists. A large part of the problem with anxiety is not wanting to experience it, fighting it, being self-critical and getting angry about how you feel and the thoughts you’re having. When we accept the anxiety, name it, and show ourselves compassion, the outcome is less anxiety. In short, you can’t fight your way to feeling calm, so be gentle with yourself. Self-compassion promotes wellbeing and boosts resilience.
6. A calm mind needs to be cultivated. We are built for survival, so anxiety is a more natural state for us. You can’t have a calm mind if you’re living a frantic, busy life. Be fearlessly protective of your tranquil time and remember rest and relaxation are medicine for the mind.