Why Am I So Anxious? A Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective
We all experience anxiety - you know, those butterflies in your stomach when trying something new, those occasional what-if thoughts that cross your mind when pondering an important decision. However, when those anxious feelings become frequent, intense, and negatively impact your daily functioning, it can be cause for concern. You may feel exhausted, restless, tense, and on edge. Perhaps you feel consumed by your anxious thoughts and feelings, develop a poor appetite, a racing heart, and experience a level of irritability that feels unlike your usual self. With a sigh of frustration and on the brink of tears, you may find yourself begging, "What can I do to feel better?!"
When you experience high anxiety, your body is in fight or flight mode. The fight or flight system is your body's protection system - preparing you to escape danger. Your breathing intensifies to take in more oxygen, your heart rate increases to supply that oxygen to your muscles more quickly, and your digestive system is put on hold, so that your body can use that energy to run (or fight!), instead of using that energy to digest your hamburger (this is why you may feel nauseous or have an upset stomach when anxious). You may also sweat, as a way for your body to cool itself down, and also to make your skin more slippery, to allow for an easier escape should someone/something try and grab you. When in true danger, these symptoms, as uncomfortable as they are, are vital.
Now, danger can exist in different forms: there are actual threats that appears right in front of you, including encountering a bear, being caught in a fire, and coming face to face with a burglar. However, there are also perceived threats that your mind creates; for example, thinking you are trapped while waiting in line, thinking you will contract a deadly virus, or maybe thinking something bad will happen to a family member if you do not perform a ritual in the correct manner. These perceived threats can elicit the same fight or flight symptoms an actual threat would.
Treatment for high anxiety involves taking a closer look at those perceptions - how you are perceiving yourself, the world, and situations you encounter. If your perceptions are not rational, you will experience those uncomfortable, high anxiety symptoms in moments when they are not necessary - in moments when you are not in any true danger, or in as great a danger as your mind is telling you.
Taking a closer look at your perceptions, or thoughts, and evaluating them for accuracy, is a critical component of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. When you begin to perceive the world in a less threatening manner, your fight or flight system will be less active.
A common thinking error (among many) that can lead to unnecessary fight-or-flight activation is what's called "jumping to conclusions," and in its more severe form, "catastrophizing." This is when you make a negative prediction of an outcome, usually based on little concrete evidence, and instead on your imagination and fears. When your mind is continuously predicting an outcome based on fear, your body is continuously mobilizing for danger. This requires a lot of energy, which ultimately leaves you feeling tired, and frustrated.
The good news is that thinking errors are highly treatable! There are several techniques to learn and practice that can help you gradually see situations in a more realistic, and rational, manner. A skilled therapist will guide you through a series of what's called socratic questions, to help you take a closer look at your thoughts, and the effect those thoughts have on your feelings and behaviors. Restructuring your thoughts to reflect a more rational, and realistic appraisal of a situation, reduces the need for your body to mobilize for danger, and thus reduces those high anxiety moments. Notice I did not say optimistic appraisal. While you may often hear the words, "focus on thinking more positively," this is not the healthiest approach for coping. There will certainly be situations in life that, realistically, will not be ideal. When thinking rationally, you are able to recognize that just because a situation is not ideal, does not mean it is awful, and just because an outcome was not as expected, does not mean I cannot cope.
To summarize, identifying and evaluating how you perceive yourself, the world, and situations around you, is the key to reducing those high anxiety moments. With more rational and helpful appraisals of situations, those uncomfortable, fight-or-flight symptoms can be reduced, leaving you feeling less anxious, and better able to enjoy life's moments.
DISCLAIMER: The blog posts shared on www.StacySmithCounseling.com contain the opinions of Stacy Smith, MS, LPC, and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations or affiliates. While Stacy is a licensed mental health professional, all blog posts on her site are for informational purposes only, and are never a substitute for professional advice catered to your individual needs. Stacy Smith is not liable for any diagnosis, treatment plans, or decisions made based on the information presented on this website.