You know that tight knot in the pit of your stomach? The one that comes with sweaty palms, nausea, and an inability to think straight? Say hello to anxiety. The bad news? We all experience it from time to time. The good news? It’s both normal and necessary.

So what IS anxiety?

The word “anxiety” has come to mean a few different things. “Anxiety” and “stress” are often used interchangeably. For example, you may feel “stressed” or “anxious” about a work presentation. For the most part, this is quite normal and the feeling usually passes after the event.

However “anxiety” can also refer to a general feeling of dread or uneasiness that exists for no apparent reason. This can be much more debilitating, impacting on your life in a number of ways. It can impact on your sleep, for example spending what seems like hours tossing and turning, waking continuously or even just waking every morning with that familiar feeling of being hit by a bus. It can also impact on your relationships, causing irritability, low libido, and depression. And of course lets not forget the impact on your physical health; hypertension, headaches, gastro intestinal problems, increased risk of heart attack and weight gain. This kind of anxiety is certainly not your friend.

So what causes Anxiety?

In short, we don’t really know. What we do know is that there are a number of factors that increase a person’s risk of developing anxiety. This includes temperament, personality, whether you have a family history of anxiety (especially a parent), increased life stress and poor stress management skills.

Either way, one of the main things that keep this type of anxiety hanging around in your life is avoidance. This is where your life really starts to suffer. You start avoiding situations or events that make you anxious.

Lets face it; it’s human nature to avoid stuff that makes us uncomfortable right? Well sure, and that’s handy if you are avoiding a cage of tigers, but avoiding situations simply because they make you feel uncomfortable – only serves to fuel the discomfort and anxiety.

And here is why.

For example, your anxiety makes you start avoiding going out with your friends, you start frequently calling in sick to work, or you opt to take the stairs of a 40 story building instead of using the lift. Sure, it’s a neat way of avoiding that immediate discomfort, but it makes it increasingly difficult to push back on the anxiety because you have no way of challenging those irrational thoughts that are telling you that going to that party or taking the lift will be disastrous. In other words, avoidance convinces you that there is no way you could cope in that particular situation.

Alternatively, by not avoiding what makes you anxious, you start to accumulate proof that the situation will not be disastrous, and you can argue against those recurring thoughts that nearly always start with “what if….”

The “What if” Syndrome

Avoidance is a behavioural choice. The reason it doesn’t feel like a choice is because it’s fuelled by some pretty powerful and automatic thoughts. “What if” statements.

Now our minds are designed to wander. They are supposed to be filled with random thoughts. You only need to spend time with a 4-year-old child so see this in action. Although our brains are thankfully very different to the average 4-year- old, the nature and frequency of our thoughts remains just the same.

The difference? It’s all about attention. As a child, our attention span is quite short. As such, a thought only captures our attention for a little while before we move on the next one. We are also much less likely to fear judgement, and the absence of a social filter means that children say what ever is in their mind.

As an adult however, our attention can get “stuck” on certain thoughts. Not only that, but we develop a social filter – so add in an “over thinking” component which is all about anticipating how other’s will “judge” you for that particular thought. Before you know it, previously “random” thoughts become the things that anxiety feeds off.

So how do you get rid of these thoughts?

In short, you can’t. We all have these thoughts, it’s just that some of us pay more to attention to them than others. Those who pay too much attention to them, are much more likely to suffer from debilitating anxiety.

So instead of trying to get rid of these thoughts, consider the following points;

  1. Accept that your mind will wander. Don’t judge it, or fight it. Remember, thoughts are just thoughts!
  2. Learn to tolerate being uncomfortable. Anxiety causes discomfort. If you learn to recognise the feeling and sit with it instead of trying to avoid or distract yourself – the feeling will pass. ALL feelings are transient, even anxiety.
  3. Learn your triggers. What are the themes? Do you worry about a loved one being hurt? Or do you worry that you won’t be able to cope in a particular situation? Think of a positive mantra or “argument” against this fear, which reinforces all the evidence against those fears.
  4. Remove unnecessary stress from your life. Ok that might sound obvious and simple, but ask yourself; Are you always rushing? Running late? Not meeting deadlines? Letting people down? Maybe you need to make a few important changes in your life such as better time management and learning to say “no”!
  5. Learn to relax. People who experience anxiety are generally more highly strung. By learning ways to relax you will give yourself a much better chance at catching the feelings early, and preventing them from escalating by not judging them and accepting them – as opposed to freaking out and making them worse.

Like anything, having realistic goals is important. Trying to completely get rid of anxiety is impossible. By accepting it you will ensure that it comes and goes in much the same way as any other emotion. Whether it sticks around and impacts on you in a negative way is entirely up to you.