Are you exhausted by persistent ‘what if?’ thoughts that cloud your mind and consume your focus? If so, you’re not alone. Clients often tell me ‘I can’t think straight and it’s messing with my head’. ‘I’m overwhelmed with all the worst imaginable worries as my brain works overtime to keep me stuck in fear’. Let’s take a closer look at what ‘anxiety’ and ‘worry’ are and dive into some practical strategies to de-clutter your mind so you can activate greater calm, clarity and choice.
‘Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you very far’ (Jodi Piccoult)
Anybody who has experienced extended periods of anxiety - and that is estimated to be one in five Australians (National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 2020) - knows it drains our mental focus and ‘messes with our heads’. Anxiety can also trigger body responses such as muscle aches, palpitations, constricted breathing and difficulties sleeping, to name just a few symptoms. This can lead to ‘anxious normal' defaults, where the brain and body anticipate anxiety and get stuck in the anxious cycle of being anxious about being anxious, which becomes anxiety about anxiety.
Contrary to what you may have read or have been told, anxiety does not have to be something that you have to learn to live with and manage for the rest of your life. There are increasing numbers of evidence-based ways to retrain body and mind to default to calmer, safer and more comfortable alternatives. Learning new approaches and possibilities is a way of being kinder to yourself and reconnecting you back to your strength.
Ultimately this gives you head space to seek the support of others and recognise you are not your thoughts: you are not the voice of the mind – you are the one who hears it (Singer, 2007).
It is normal to feel anxious now and then. Like before giving a speech, starting a new job, trying something new for the first time, being assessed or sitting an exam, speaking to a boss, etc. Anxiety is when the anxious sensation stays with you, beyond the event and the fearful brain remains focused on forecasting debilitating future events that have not happened yet. The brain becomes locked in fight or flight mode, activating the high alert, hyper vigilant search for more danger. It’s not unusual for me to hear ‘there was a scary time when I thought I was having a heart attack with palpitations, a tight chest, I couldn’t breathe, and the doctor checked me out and said it’s anxiety and me not managing my stress. Believe me, I would if I knew how’.
Some of my previous blogs have explored the neuroscience of a past, much older ‘danger signal’ being triggered by a current situation (Research - Bayside Healthy Living). I often use the analogy that the initial ‘fear trigger’ has been stored like a beach ball, pushed down beneath the surface of the mind, until it starts to get bigger and bigger, connecting itself to past, present, and future fear cycles. Anyone who has tried to hold a beach ball beneath the water knows that it takes a lot of energy to hold it there, and often when your arms are tired, it bounces out of the water and smacks you straight in your face!
When thinking of that beach ball, it becomes easier to understand that anxiety relates to a group of mental health classifications such as phobias and panic attacks - obsessive patterns and behaviours and what has been labelled by mental health experts as GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) (National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 2020). If you have been told you have GAD, then it is likely your brain is working overtime and you experience excessive worry about everyday events, for no specific reason.
Central to generalised anxiety, worry often presents as an uncontrollable stream of fearful beliefs and thoughts, the what ifs, and worst possible scenarios, that can provoke dread, fear and apprehension in both mind and body. Relentless and consuming worry blocks the brain’s capacity to think clearly, feels like a ‘sensory overload’ and makes it challenging to sleep, get out of bed in the morning, focus and make realistic and achievable choices for the day.
Worry doesn’t empty today of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength. Corrie ten Boom (1982)
Eckhart Tolle (2004) suggests that endless ‘what if’ thoughts project us into an imaginary future situation, fuelling false fear and moving your brain from the present moment of reality into an imagined, anxious future. He confronts us with a clear message that we need to get out of the way of these ruminations and make a better choice:
“There is no way you can cope with that situation because it does not exist. It’s a mental phantom. You can stop this health and life-corroding insanity simply by acknowledging the present moment. Become aware of your breathing. Feel the air flowing in and out of your body ... All that you ever have to deal with, cope with, in real life – as opposed to imaginary mind projections – is this moment. … You can always cope with the Now, but you can never cope with the future – nor do you have to.” (Toll, 1984, p. 85)
It is important to acknowledge that anxiety is a normal response to a perceived threat or danger, a response that serves a purpose when required to jump out of the way of a fast-moving car, run from danger or move your hand from a hot object. Your brain and body are wired to protect you - not harm you or hold you back – and the most incredible thing to realise is that anxiety and excitement light up the brain in similar ways.
An innovative researcher from Harvard Business School (Wood Brooks, 2013) was able to encourage participants to reappraise / relabel anxiety as ‘excitement’ and the result was an increased subjective measure of excitement, which improved subsequent maths performance. Compared with participants who attempted to tell themselves to calm down, “individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better. Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g. saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g. “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance.” (p. 1)
Dr Gordon Livingston, an inspiring psychiatrist with more than 5 decades of clinical practice says that most of us become habitual creatures, steeped in habit, fearful of change, and this results to some degree in being ‘rewired to risk aversion’. Dr Livingston explains, usually it is fear and its close cousin, anxiety, that keep us from doing those things that would make us happy (p. 55) where he describes mental health as “a function of choice. The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be” (Livingston, 2006, p. 161).
Decades ago, Louise Hay (1988) also stated a thought is just a thought and can be changed (see my previous blog: Breaking the cycle of rumination; https://baysidehealthyliving.com.au/breaking-the-cycle-of-rumination-2/). There are small things you can do each day that really can make a big difference to reclaiming your clarity, focus and memory recall, reminding your mind and body that you are safe, and have more control over your mind than you feel right now.
Take a moment to reflect on the biggest chance you’ve ever taken in life. What drove and motivated you to make that change? When you reflect back, it may not surprise you to recall that the benefits and ‘why factor’ for embracing the change, far outweighed the fear. All change takes change, and along with taking chances that you have managed in the past, there was always the fear of failure, fear of being judged, fear of letting others down, but you rose above fear to find the courage to take that chance.
And don’t forget that we are here to motivate and inspire you to become the best version of yourself, so if you have additional questions or want to understand how to put anxiety and persistent worries permanently behind you, please give us a call.
Look forward to chatting with you.
Amanda & Tara
Boom, C. Ten. (1982). Clippings from my notebook (First). Thomas Nelson Inc.
Hay, L. (1988). You can heal your life. Specialist Publications.
Livingston, G. (2006). Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty true things you need to know now. Hodder & Stoughton.
National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing. (2020). [Australian Bureau of Statistics]. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing/latest-release.
Singer, M. (2007). The untethered soul. New Harbinger Publications.
Tolle, E. (2004). The Power of Now. Hachette.
Wood Brooks, A. (2013). Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. 1–9.