Anxiety is a liar - When bad things happen?
I was having a conversation with a friend about her anxiety and she said this; "I know my anxiety is irrational, so how can it be my patterns of thinking that create my anxiety".
I spent some time thinking about this and the truth is I’m not sure it’s fair to say anxiety is irrational. I believe anxiety comes from something you have learnt, and so makes it rational to us. So why doesn’t telling ourselves that our anxious thoughts aren’t true take away anxiety?
Studies say that our long-term memory prioritise what we remember. Information is channelled to the hippocampus, the brain region crucial for the formation of new memories. The hippocampus will prioritise thoughts that have been rehearsed repeatedly in the short-term memory, or those with a strong emotional component and can actually link elements such as smell to that memory. This means that a good or bad experience could change the way we process a situation in the future.
I remember this one time when I was young and my mum had been going through a bad patch. She was rushed in to hospital very abruptly overnight. We all went to see her and when we got there she wasn’t looking great. The doctors told us that they weren’t sure if she was going to live through the night. On the way home in the car I wanted to cry. I remember praying in my head asking God to either stop her suffering or make her better. However, that wasn’t how we dealt with it in our household, crying made it harder for everyone. We stepped out to compose ourselves when we needed to and then came back in and carried on for mum’s sake. This wasn’t a one-off and often my Head of Year at school would call me into her office to tell me my mum had been taken to hospital. I learnt that it wasn’t ok to be vulnerable you had to put a front on to get through it, you couldn’t be “weak”, it was uncomfortable. I associated everything with weakness particularly failure or vulnerability.
As I grew up that need not to be “weak” and the belief that vulnerability was bad became a subconscious way of life. I never even thought about the occasions that taught me that lesson. I worked hard at work and I succeeded in everything I did. If I didn't think I could do well in something then I would avoid it. This only further cemented the belief that failure was not an option, weakness was not ok. Until one day I was tired of pushing myself so hard and being anxious when confronted with risk. I asked myself why, what am I so scared of?
The only way I could break this was to accept how those situations made me feel. To finally listen to my hurt and vulnerability and have the courage to try a different path. A lot of anxiety comes from beliefs that we have learnt, we just may not have worked out what that belief is yet or where it came from. If we can create negative patterns of thinking with a strong emotional event or a repeated experience in our lives, then we can also break it by repeatedly choosing a new way of thinking about our old experiences.
My final thought on this is important, this is a journey of patience, understanding and kindness, not of determination, grit and brute. You can’t force yourself to change by telling yourself your anxiety is “irrational”, you must listen to yourself first, learn what feelings and thoughts you are having and then be kind to yourself in that. We are our own worst critics and I often find myself asking if my friend came to me and said she was having the thoughts or feeling I am having, what would I say to her? And thus, what should I be saying to myself? Then you can start to choose alternative beliefs, in kindness not in determination.