Anxiety is Misunderstood!
Why you should stop seeing anxiety as the cause of your problems…
Anxiety is misunderstood by many, so I am going to set the record straight here today. I am going to help you understand why your anxiety is not the cause of your current struggles, but how it is, instead, the symptom. It is common knowledge that if we focus only on the symptoms of an illness, we don’t treat the cause…right?
But first, a quick introduction of me. I am Leanne Astbury and I am a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist who owns a Private practice in the Cheshire area. I specialise in working with adults who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. When I am not working in my private practice, I am spending my time finding new ways to help to educate, inspire, and support anyone who is experiencing difficulties with their mental health, for reasons that I will explain in this article.
I became a Psychotherapist after years of struggling with my own mental health. I had a very difficult start to life, which resulted in some very challenging years in my early adulthood. I was diagnosed with both anxiety and depression, but received very little support other than medication. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom that I realised if I was to stand any chance in finding happiness in my life, I had to take action for myself; it was difficult to accept, but no one else was responsible for my happiness other than me….and so my journey began.
Before I begin to share with you what I now understand from my own personal journey and professional experience, I want you to read the following statements slowly:
“You don’t struggle to be around people because you’re anxious, you are anxious because you struggle to be around people”
“You don’t doubt your ability to deliver the presentation because you’re anxious, you are anxious because you doubt your ability to deliver the presentation”
“You don’t worry about the opinions of others because you are anxious, you are anxious because you worry about the opinions of others”
Now hold that thought…
Let’s now talk about anxiety. Anxiety is a normal human response to danger. Our brain has a very important role to play in preparing us for survival if it was to detect a threat. This response is commonly known as the fight or flight response. When your brain detects danger, it sends a message to your body which then goes through a physiological response to increase energy and strength. This is something to be thankful for if you were ever to be in real life dangerous situation as it would increase your chances of survival. The problem for many is that their brain detects danger, even when danger isn’t present and this can cause daily life to become very difficult.
The reason that this happens is simply because our brain doesn’t know the difference between real danger or perceived danger. Unfortunately, our brain has not evolved to fit in with our modern world.
An example of real danger-
You are crossing a road when a speeding car suddenly appears from nowhere. Your brain detects the threat which sets off your body’s survival response and you find yourself jumping backwards out of the way of the car. You wouldn’t have time to think about this; it would happen very quickly and you would be left with the physiological symptoms once the car has passed (e.g.- shaking hands and racing heart).
An example of perceived danger-
You are about to deliver a presentation or lead a meeting. You are worrying that you haven’t prepared enough and you may make a fool of yourself in front of your colleagues. Your brain detects a threat to you and sets off the survival response. You find yourself experiencing the physiological symptoms of anxiety leading up to the presentation or during it. (e.g.- shaking hands and racing heart)
The reason this is referred to as perceived danger is because being underprepared for a presentation is not life-threatening, unlike a speeding car.
You may now be thinking, if this is the case, why doesn’t everyone experience daily anxiety as we all have a brain that hasn’t evolved…right?
Right, but wrong question. The right question would be, why doesn’t everyone perceive non-life-threatening situations to be a threat?
To understand this, you first need to have an understanding of the difference between self-worth and self-esteem.
Self-worth is what we think and feel about ourselves on the inside. It is knowing we are good enough, likeable, lovable, worthy, important, and valued, just for being us. It isn’t dependant on what money we have, the job we do, the way we look, or our relationships. So, for example, you may have very little money, but this doesn’t make you feel any less worthy than someone you know who is quite wealthy. Having self-worth is knowing that you are enough just because you are a human being.
Self-esteem is what we think and feel about ourselves on the outside, with regards to our ability to do things. It is also how we think other people view us. So, for example, you may have a successful career and feel good about your ability to do your job, or you may have received promotions within your company, therefore your abilities are also recognised by other people. This would suggest that you have high self-esteem in your ability to do your job.
Throughout our lives, our self-esteem can and will fluctuate depending on the different stages and circumstances of our life at that moment. For instance, we can at any point be made redundant from a job, decide to change our career, or even retire from work. So the areas in our lives where we may have high self-esteem can and will change. This is exactly why you should never place your value and worth as a person on anything external because this will change throughout your life.
Consider this for a moment…
If you place your value and worth as a person on your looks, what happens when you get older and these start to fade?
If you place your value and worth as a person on your career, what happens when you retire from work or get made redundant?
If you place your value and worth as a person onto your partner, what happens if they leave you?
If you place your value and worth as a person on a talent you have, what happens if something prevents you from doing it anymore?
We should never place our value and worth as a person on anything or anyone external if we want to find happiness in life and here is why…
If you do not have a healthy relationship with yourself, you will spend your life trying to fill this void.
It is a natural human instinct to want to feel good enough, to want to feel likeable, lovable, worthy, valued, and accepted. So if we don’t feel those things on the inside, we will seek them on the outside. Meaning, that if we lack self-worth on the inside, we will seek validation for our worth from the outside world with regards to our ability to do things, to try and influence how others view us.
Some examples of common ways people may try to validate themselves are:
Having a successful career
The way they dress and look
Only taking on tasks/hobbies they know they will be good at
Avoid making mistakes at all costs
Have an immaculate home
Their children are dressed immaculately
Only share the positives in their life with others
Spend money they don’t have to impress others
Struggle to say no
Always want to appear happy
Try to make people laugh in social settings
I can personally relate to some of these behaviours and can very often identify them in my therapy room with clients, which over the years has allowed me to see a pattern occurring for those experiencing difficulties with their mental health.
What has all this got to do with Anxiety?
A quick reminder of the statement I shared above; “You don’t struggle to be around people because you anxious, you are anxious because you struggle to be around people”
If you lack self-worth, you will fear not being good enough, you will fear not being liked, you will fear not being accepted or worthy of others.
Why will you fear these things? Because it is a natural human instinct to need to feel all of these things.
What happens then is, if you fear not being good enough, you will do everything in your power (subconsciously) to make sure you prove you are good enough.
If you fear not being liked, you will do everything you can for others to ensure you are liked.
If you fear not being accepted, you will do everything it takes to be accepted; even at a cost of your own well-being,
You will sacrifice your own needs and happiness to influence the way others see you because the fear is so great. This fear is what creates the anxiety we experience.
The problem with this, as I mentioned earlier, is that we can’t rely on external things to validate our worth because those things change and are never guaranteed. We are, therefore, trying to achieve the impossible and the pressure we put on ourselves is relentless.
The only alternative, that we can see within our mind, is to feel worthless and to feel rejected from society; so of course, the battle continues on a daily basis to try and avoid this. That is until the battle becomes too hard for us to fight anymore, because we are physical and mentally exhausted from the constant need to try to prove ourselves, and then our fear of unworthiness becomes our new reality…our mood declines and sadness takes over…
The good news!
My aim from this article is to help you understand that freedom from anxiety requires understanding yourself and working on the relationship you have with yourself.
As you will now understand from reading this, putting our time and energy into our relationships with everyone and everything externally, doesn’t work. It won’t ever work, and the reason is that happiness is not found in the outside world, happiness is found inside of us. Once we find the happiness within ourselves, then, of course, those things on the outside add to it and amplify it. So, what is the key? To go inwards first.
If you are living with anxiety, then your relationship with yourself is what you need to focus on. Have a think about the image you have of yourself. Ask yourself, “If all the external things were taken from me (such as my job, money, relationships, and my looks, etc.), what value and worth would I place on myself?”
Remember, you don’t struggle to be around people because you’re anxious, you are anxious because you struggle to be around people. The reason you struggle to around people is because you don’t believe you are good enough, worthy, or likeable; this is the problem, not the anxiety.
As we get older, our looks will change, we will retire from our jobs, our children will leave home, our friendships change, family members may move away, people will come and go from our lives and, sadly, some will let us down along the way; it is part of the human experience. But the one thing that won’t change is who you are on the inside, so take the time to do the work and see how your mental health and happiness improves.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an effective form of therapy in the treatment of anxiety. The word cognitive is another word for our thoughts, behaviour is the way we act, and therapy is the treatment.
Cognitive – Thoughts
Behaviour – Actions
Therapy – Treatment
Research supporting CBT provides strong evidence that the thoughts we have control the feelings we experience and our feelings determine our actions.
For example: If your partner comes home late from work frequently, the way you think and make sense of the situation will affect how you feel and what you do about it. Such that if you think they are having an affair, you might feel sad or angry and hence confront them. Whereas, if you thought they were working hard for the family, your actions would be very different.
Research also provides strong evidence that our perception can be distorted through the beliefs we hold about ourselves from our past experiences. The beliefs we form are linked to the worth we place on ourselves and the way we see ourselves in this world.
Therefore, when someone works with a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, the therapist will want to work alongside them to change the unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns that are causing them to feel anxious. But as discussed here today, it is equally important to help them to understand the root of these thoughts and behaviours, so the treatment plan can support them in making lifelong changes to their relationship with themselves.
“Therapy is not about changing who you are, it is about realising who you have always been”