This summer, we had a wake-up call. Or rather, we would have had one, if we weren't worrying about the number of things going wrong in our lives, and feeling completely overwhelmed about how to deal with it.
Anxiety, we're sorry to say, is here to stay.
The Office For National Statistics, said the Guardian, revealed in a far-reaching survey that at some point, one in five Brits suffer from anxiety, depression or both.
To get a handle on what anxiety is - from causes to fixes - we ask anxiety expert Rob Kelly who created The Thrive Programme, which helps people get through issues such as weight loss, depression, anxiety, phobias, smoking cessation, panic attacks and negative thinking.
What causes anxiety?
People tend to believe that anxiety is something that happens to them, so they often feel completely powerless to improve their situation. This, however, isn’t remotely true! Anxiety is created by people’s beliefs and ways of thinking. It is never the feared situation itself that causes anxiety, but the way in which a person thinks about it.
In particular, people’s perceptions of control are really important in determining whether or not they will create anxiety about a particular scenario. As famous psychologist Bandura (1988) stated: “People who believe they can exercise control over potential threats do not conjure up apprehensive cognitions and, hence, are not perturbed by them. But those who believe they cannot manage potential threats experience high levels of anxiety arousal. They tend to dwell on their coping deficiencies and view many aspects of their environment as fraught with danger.”
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Is it a control issue?
There are two ways in which people can feel in control of potential challenges. Firstly, they can have a high sense of primary control, believing that they can prevent a potential threat from occurring. A person could, for example, be certain that they have the skills to complete an important work assignment on time. As a result, they do not worry about the possibility of not getting the work done, since they are sure that this event will not occur!
People can also have a strong sense of secondary control, believing that even when a potential threat is outside their primary control, they have the skills and resources to respond positively, cope and bounce back. A person could, for example, be confident that if they were to be diagnosed with cancer they would manage and still be able to enjoy life. So, they do not worry about the possibility of having cancer.
Having a relatively high sense of primary control is important generally, as it contributes to ‘can do’ attitude, where people believe that they have the resources needed to achieve their goals.
How can people use that overcome anxiety?
In relation to overcoming anxiety, building a sense of secondary control is particularly significant. Although many outcomes are within people’s primary control, there are events that are not always controllable.
While you can, for example, strongly influence your physical health, you cannot entirely prevent yourself from ever getting ill.
People who create a lot of anxiety, or have specific fears or phobias, always have a low sense of secondary control. They do not believe that they have the skills and resources to cope with certain situations. This means that they will often go out of their way to avoid feared scenarios, which only reinforces to them these situation are too terrifying, increasing their sense of powerlessness.
People who feel powerless but have a high desire for control are particularly likely to create anxiety and engage in avoidance behaviours. The extent to which you believe you can control your life and your desire for control, how much control you feel you need over your life, are not the same thing.
Desiring control over your life is good, if you, also, believe that you do have the power to shape your life, as you are then likely to take positive action to achieve your goals. Those with a healthy desire for control always have a high sense of secondary control.
They believe that they have the skills and resources to cope with situations that are outside their primary control. They don’t feel the need to try to over-control every little thing, because they know that they can cope with challenging situations.
But what happens when control is used in the wrong way?
Having a high desire for control when you believe that you are powerless is going to result in you feeling very apprehensive. This combination of really wanting control but feeling powerless, results in people anxiously attempting to control every insignificant aspect of their lives that they can; they become a ‘control freak’!
These people can have a relatively strong sense of primary control, but they never have high secondary control; their attempts at over-control are the result of feeling that they could not cope if a particular scenario took place.
For these people, even being 90% certain that they can prevent a threat from occurring is not enough, because they believe that if that threat did occur, they could not possibly cope! So they do everything they can to avoid the potential threat, which as I mentioned earlier, just makes things worse!
How can you actually reduce anxiety?
1. Build up your sense of control
As I have highlighted above, building a strong sense of secondary control is important in reducing anxiety. You want to develop resilience and realise that you do have the skills and resources to deal with any situation. Two ways that will help you to do this are:
• Start changing your thoughts whenever you think in a powerless way. Our language strongly influences our beliefs and emotions. By using positive, powerful language, you will create less stress, anticipate positive outcomes and feel more empowered. Pay attention to the words you use and change any unhelpful words for more helpful ones. For example, ‘‘it’s terrifying at the dentist, I’ll be a wreck” could become “it’s a bit unpleasant at the dentist, but I can cope with it”.
• One of the best ways to feel more in control is to overcome challenges. So, set yourself a personal challenge that you are going to achieve over the next week or so. This should be something that will be a little bit difficult for you to achieve BUT is something that you can do, if you put in some effort.
To ensure that you succeed, you want to think about what steps you are going to take to achieve your challenge. As you work towards your goal, you want to keep encouraging yourself and praising yourself for the effort you are putting in. Once you have completed your challenge you want to recognise your achievement and say ‘well done’ to yourself for your hard work.
2. Stop avoiding feared situations
When you want to avoid a particular feared situation, remind yourself that you do not need to do so. Tell yourself that you are capable of tolerating any feelings of discomfort and that you do have the skills and resources to cope with the situation.
Make sure that you praise yourself for tolerating the experience. If you start to feel anxious and want to get away, slow your breathing down and tell yourself you can cope with the situation. Eg. ‘This is OK, I can tolerate this situation’.
You want to keep reminding yourself that the anxiety you are experiencing isn’t being caused by the situation itself but by your unhelpful thinking in relation to it. Tell yourself: ‘this fear is coming from inside me, not outside of me and I can tolerate it.’ Every time you tolerate a feared situation you are building up your skills, so that the next time it will be easier.
Albert Bandura (1988): Self-efficacy conception of anxiety, Anxiety Research: An International Journal, 1:2, 77-98