Understanding what anxiety is can be invaluable when learning how to cope with it.
We can learn a tendency to be anxious from others when we are children. Therefore, it is more likely that if you had a parent who was anxious that you will also be anxious. This is because we learn how to react to the fight or flight response at a young age, and if our parents allowed it to develop into anxiety then that is the blueprint we also learn. However, if this is a habit that we have learnt, we can equally unlearn it. Like all habits, it needs to be repeated until it becomes an automatic response. We therefore have to make ourselves not react to the fight or flight response, until it calms down and it is not as strong.
Many people struggle with their anxiety. They force themselves to try and ignore the anxiety. However, this will not work. This is because by thinking ‘I must not be anxious’; you are in fact still thinking about the anxiety. Anxiety is often referred to as a monster, which people think they should fight. However, by fighting it you are just feeding and encouraging it.
Anxiety is more like a toddler throwing a tantrum. It wants attention. It is an instinctual response that wants you to pay attention to it, as there is potentially a danger there and it needs you to do something. However, once you have checked that there is no real danger, the best thing to do is to ignore it. Then, just like a toddler throwing a tantrum it will stop as it is not getting attention. Like a toddler, the more attention you give to it the louder it will become both now and in the future.
Thinking of anxiety as a small child also reminds you to reassure yourself that there is no danger.
Our brains link things, this is how we learn. Therefore, our brains link things that may cause us a threat. For example, if you were wearing a red sweater when you had a car accident, your brain might then send out a danger signal and start the fight or flight response each time you see the red sweater.
‘Beware, last time you wore that red sweater you had a car accident, maybe you should avoid the red sweater as you don’t want to have another car accident’.
In actual fact, the red sweater had no part in you having the car accident. It was just a co-incidence that you were wearing it at the time. However, if you do not ignore that warning and do actually avoid the red sweater, just in case, then that warning will fire more strongly next time you see the red sweater.
It may then even get to the point where you become phobic of red sweaters as you have listened to and followed the warning several times. As a result, your brain intensifies the warning signal to the point where you have a panic attack whenever you see a red sweater. This is how many phobias are formed. Therefore, be mindful of when you do engage in the fight and flight response and start to avoid things ‘just in case’. Avoidance just encourages the anxiety.
Meditation and mindfulness teaches you how to slow down your thoughts, calm them, and move your thoughts from one thing to another. It also teaches you to recognise your thoughts and pay attention to them. It also teaches your body to relax and involves deep breathing. These are the key skills you need to learn to deal with anxiety. Therefore, my top tip for helping with anxiety is to start meditating or being mindful. This is a skill we all need to learn, and continue to practice, in order to ensure that our stress levels do not get too high.
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