Manage anxiety with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
You can manage anxiety with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Anxiety is a part of life and even a useful addition but too much anxiety can destabilise and overwhelm you. It’s not possible to eradicate anxiety completely. Many of my clients expect that Cognitive behavioral therapy will stop anxiety completely but this is unrealistic.
Aspects of anxiety
There’s two aspects to anxiety. On the one hand, anxiety is a symptom of the way we are built. We needed anxiety to keep us alert and safe. If we never experienced anxiety we’d probably be extinct by now and more wiley predators would be top dog. Anxiety alerts our survival instinct and keeps us away from danger. So far so good.
Our biology hasn’t kept up with modern technology though. The fast-paced world we live in has sped up exponentially but evolution takes a while to catch up. Changes that need to be made in the way we process information in our brains to keep up just aren’t possible. So we have an outdated reaction to many of the stressors we face today.
This brings me on to the second aspect of anxiety. When we face stress today, our old brain still reacts in the same way as it would when we were faced with a deadly predator from our caveman-days. The old brain senses the same fight/flight/freeze response and acts accordingly. It gears the body up for the perceived threat. Adrenalin is released, we might get sweaty palms and a racing heart. Anxiety can feel really frightening and unmanageable.
The problem is that our anxiety response is out of proportion to the challenge we face. Financial problems or a boss that bullies you isn’t as life-threatening as a saber-toothed tiger that’s ready to pounce. See the dilemma?
Anxiety and evolution
Evolution hasn’t helped us to manage anxiety. Evolution has provided us with a frontal lobe that allows us to experience empathy for others and enables us to put ourselves in the shoes of others. We refer to this as Theory of Mind.
The frontal cortex is known as the new brain. The frontal cortex controls short-sighted, reflexive behaviors like planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and acting with long-term goals in mind. They are higher-level cognitive processes that people tend to display greater proficiency in than other animals—thus you could argue they are some of the functions that truly help to make human cognition unique.
The disadvantage of Theory of mind is that we now have the ability to ruminate over things that may never happen. We are aware of our mortality and of things that could possibly go wrong in the future. “What if” thinking is a typical example of how we increase our anxiety over worries that are hypothetical.
Theory of mind works against being in the present moment
The frontal cortex allows us to worry incessantly. Seems evolution hasn’t been too efficient where this is concerned. We can spend hours worrying and believing the nonsense our brain serves up for us on a daily basis. The more you can focus on your surroundings instead of being too introspective, the better. This leads me to my next point…mindfulness.
The benefits of mindfulness to help manage anxiety
Mindfulness is a fantastic way to manage anxiety. Mindfulness is the practise of focusing on reality around you rather than being too caught up in the thoughts in your mind. We think around 80 000 thoughts per day. Seventy percent of those are random, nonsense thoughts that aren’t practical, problem-solving or useful. Whilst it’s important to address denial or dysfunctional thinking that is negatively affecting your life, it isn’t useful to engage with every thought you have.
A quick mindfulness exercise for you to try:
Focus on 5 things you can see
Four things you can touch
Three things you can hear
Two things you can smell
One thing that you like about yourself
Engaging your senses is a wonderful mindfulness technique and gets you out of your head. Do this regularly as one technique to reduce anxiety.
Deep breathing is also useful. When you manage your anxiety by taking deep breaths, you confuse the old brain. It expects fast breathing, an increased pulse rate etc (the typical stress response) and deep breathing conflicts with this typical reaction. Deep breathing sends a signal to the old brain (the limbic system) that the threat no longer exists or that the danger is decreasing.
How healthy is your mental diet?
The way you think can either hinder or help you to manage anxiety. Have you ever wondered about the quality of your thoughts? We all engage in automatic thought processes. They are created from our past experiences and help us make quick judgments about the world and others. These cognitive shortcuts aren’t reliable though and can cause more unnecessary anxiety.
Here’s an example of an unhelpful thinking style:
Your boss doesn’t greet you when you say hello one morning
Automatic thought: I wonder if I have done something wrong? maybe they are annoyed at me?
Behavior – you avoid your boss for the rest of the day.
Alternative thinking: Your boss might be tired, perhaps they didn’t hear you and they were distracted. There are many reasons for their behavior other than them being annoyed at you. When you think these thoughts, you will feel less anxious than when you engage in mind reading.
Click here for more examples of unhelpful thinking styles that add to your anxiety: unhelpful thinking examples
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)and anxiety
Real vs hypothetical worry
- CBT encourages you to distance yourself from your thinking, see it as separate from you. Think about whether your worry or real (the washing machine has broken down) or hypothetical (what if I don’t enjoy the party?). If it’s real you will be able to do something about it. If it is hypothetical – let it go.
- Get out of your head and be more mindful.
- Don’t believe everything you think.
- Be aware of any unhelpful thinking errors. (see below)
If you feel that your anxiety overwhelms you, get in touch. Anxiety is manageable and with the right interventions you will lead a life with far more peace of mind.