Are you brave enough to read on……??
Women are 70% more likely to suffer from anxiety than men. Perhaps that statistic does not shock you but would it surprise you to hear that anxiety is a good thing?
Imagine a life without anxiety – and before we go any further, let’s just clarify that anxiety is one of many words we use to mean fear. If you had no fear, you might cross the road without checking for cars or you might walk too close to the edge of a cliff. Fear’s role is to protect us. It’s our mind’s way of sending us a warning and without that, life would be perilous.
All emotions are the language of the mind – the brain’s way of communicating to the body to do something. When the mind senses risk, it tells the body to react in a myriad of ways: blood gets redirected to the limbs, your eyesight becomes more acute, your hearing can become more sensitive – all things that are needed to either run away or fight the perceived danger. And this worked brilliantly when we were living in caves and ‘danger’ typically had four legs and sharp teeth!
Since then our environment has changed dramatically but the emotion centre of our minds hasn’t. The mind is wired to perceive risk and our lives have become so much more complicated, that it is seeing risk everywhere, resulting in the escalating diagnoses of anxiety.
We can’t easily re-wire the mind, but by learning how the mind perceives risk, we can teach it to become more sensitive.
Learn to speak the language of the mind
So, when you start to understand the language of the mind, it supports a new dialogue; a new way of thinking and from that, a new way of feeling!
So, let’s go back to school and take a crash course in the language of the mind –it’s as simple as ABCD!
A is for action.
It starts with a trigger, which is often a thought. The thought pops up about the presentation you have got to give, or what might have gone wrong to cause your daughter to be late home. That trigger quickly lead to a feeling of anxiety but it all started with an action taken by your mind. Your mind takes the thought and goes into its database of all the memories it has stored up since day one to see if it can find a solution to the problem.
B is for belief.
However, a heck of a lot of data has been stored over time so to make life easier, it groups data together. These groups can become beliefs – the generalisations we use to make sense of the world.
For example, a belief for most people is that stealing is bad. This belief has been established over time: you heard grown ups tell us that stealing was bad, you perhaps tested the water and suffered the consequences. All these ‘experiences’ got stored until the mind got to a critical mass and established the belief that stealing is bad. Beliefs then get an ‘important’ stamp in the data files.
So let’s go back to that late young lady. You may have read news stories about people being attacked. Seen TV programmes about crime. Perhaps even experienced a negative experience yourself. All of these things have been filed away, eventually creating a belief that the world is a dangerous place.
Therefore, when the thought of her being late arrived, your mind goes into its database and finds the belief, “The world is a dangerous place” and locks on to this important file.
C is for consequence.
Beliefs lead to consequences – and these also often arrive as thoughts. The belief may trigger the thought, “What if she is a victim of a crime?” And the mind just loves questions – so it answers it based on what else it finds in the database… “She might be lying in a gutter somewhere,” or “She may have had her bag snatched and can’t call me”. Get the gist?
It doesn’t end there though. There is a consequence to each consequence! The thought leads to more thoughts until there is one with enough fire power behind it to create a feeling. For example, “What if she is lying in the gutter?” This thought alone will be picked up by that part of the mind that is constantly monitoring for risk and having perceived the risk to your own life for not having your daughter in it, will instigate the fear response – fight or flight.
Now this may all seem a little dramatic – and I have oversimplified it a little, but just take a moment. How often have you gone from a thought to imagining a full on catastrophe in just a few steps? And those steps led you to a physical state – in this case, anxiety.
D is for decision.
And this is where the good news arrives. Thoughts are just… thoughts! They are NOT fact. Facts are concrete, measurable; you can do something with them. If the police turned up and told you your daughter was found in a gutter, you would take action; get your coat, go to the hospital etc. But you do not grab your coat when the thought arrives! However, because there is no fact upon which to take action, the thoughts just keep going round and around.
So there is a very simple decision to make: do you want to keep that thought? After all, it is yours, you can do what you want with it!
Whilst it is easy to say, it may be a bit more tricky to do, so here are some suggestions:
- Ask yourself what FACTS you have to base the thought on.
- Ask yourself what other possibilities may be true: This is a great one because it opens up a new set of consequences – e.g. perhaps the bus was late and her phone battery is flat. Perhaps she is having a wonderful time and just lost track of the hour. Each of these thoughts stimulates a new chain of consequences, leading to the potential for a different feeling.
- Ask yourself what other beliefs are relevant– for example, “I believe she is a sensible girl who can look after herself”.
By making a decision on whether or not to keep that original thought, you have taken control and when you are in a position of control, you feel less vulnerable, and when you are less vulnerable your brain feels less at risk and you can ‘recalibrate’.
And recalibration means finely tuning your risk radar to be more sensitive to the modern world so that it doesn’t set off that fight or flight reaction at the merest hint of a problem.
And the way we do this is to reverse the process!
Go into reverse
D – Make the decision to have a different thought. By simply saying to yourself, “That thought is rubbish, I want a different one”, your mind will oblige. Try it! Think of eating a slug. Now think of eating a large slice of gateau. Bet you could swap those over easily – and you can do that with any thought!
C – The different thought will support a different chain of consequences which in turn, can lead to a different feeling.
B – With that different feeling you can refine your beliefs. Perhaps the ‘World is a dangerous place’ could change to ‘The world can sometimes be a dangerous place.’ Small changes in words can lead to huge changes in meaning. By introducing possibilities, you introduce other outcomes – that sometimes it is NOT a dangerous place!
This then takes us all the way back up to A – the Action.
By reversing the process and making some manual adjustments by making a new decision, the action will now be recalibrated on your risk radar. Next time she is late home, your mind finds a new important file – the belief that the world is only sometimes dangerous. The consequence can then be that she might have just missed her bus and she is probably having a lovely time. And with that, your action can be to have a cuppa and relax!
So how can anxiety be a good thing?
As well as protecting us, anxiety helps us grow as individuals. With a well calibrated risk radar you are more sensitive to those things that are truly risky – like walking too close to a cliff edge – and those things that are a perceived risk because they are unfamiliar. I choose to go out of my comfort zone regularly; a parachute jump and a trek to Peru both things I have done in the last 6 months that I have felt anxious about, but I know the anxiety is only because I had not done those things before and my database had no references for them. And by using the DCBA approach, I took action, and through that action, did things that were amazing and have made me a more confident person!