He’s 20 mins late. Something must have happened to him. Why’s there so much turbulence? The plane’s definitely going to crash. I’ve had a sore throat for 3 days now – maybe I’ve got cancer.
If you find these types of thoughts regularly swirling your head, and you move through life thinking catastrophe’s going to hit at any moment, you might be suffering from anxiety.
Sometimes this feeling of dread doesn’t attach itself to any thoughts in particular. It might just be an all-compassing fear that clouds over your days. Perhaps it is low-level and persistent – always there in the background – or maybe it finds itself escalating into a full-blown panic attack. Either way, it would be an understatement to say this isn’t a fun way to be going about life.
Let’s take a closer look at why this might be happening.
Why do I always feel like something bad is going to happen?
These kinds of thoughts and fears generally stem from past experiences or the way in which we grew up. Because of this it can help to dig a little deeper.
Sometimes something terrible did happen in the past, something that came as a shock or felt very overwhelming at the time. We know, for example, that people who come from divorced homes are 70% more likely to suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Other times it might be more subtle than this and harder to chart back to one specific event. Thoughts like these can also be instilled in us from the voices we had around us growing up.
Perhaps you had over-protective parents who felt like this themselves. Maybe they passed down their own fears about the world, warning you that the world is a scary place and teaching you to always be on guard. As we grow up, these voices can end up getting hard-wired into our brain as truths.
Other times it might be because we grew up with a lot instability around us. Maybe one – or both – of your parents were emotionally unstable and you never got the security and reassurance you needed as a child. Our primary caregivers are the ones who pave the way for our sense of security in later life. If that’s lacking when we’re small, we’re going to struggle “parenting” or reassuring ourselves as we grow into adulthood.
But what’s worrying got to do with it?
If you’re living with anxiety, you’re probably feeling pretty peeved off about it – and rightly so. How did things get like this? How can these horrible thoughts be serving any purpose at all?
As unpleasant as these thoughts are, it can provide some comfort to recognise that they are not all bad. Believe it or not, anxiety is actually there to protect us. It’s what saved us from being eaten by that sabre-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes back in the day. When utilised in the right setting, worrying can actually save our life.
But here’s the thing: only when it serves a purpose. Anxiety becomes an issue when we start to see danger in everything.
If we’re going to worry about the things we don’t know for sure then we’re going to wind up spending most of our life worrying. Why’s that? Because life itself is uncertain. Try as we might, worrying is rarely going to stop something bad from happening.
In order to live contently, we need to find some sort of acceptance with this unpredictability – and roll with it, instead of trying to control it. And that’s no bad thing. Most people with anxiety will tend to see uncertainty as something inherently bad – which it is not. Uncertainty is actually neutral. Of course, sometimes it brings bad experiences, but other times it brings beautiful things we might otherwise have never imagined.
Why is this type of thinking so detrimental?
When we feel very worried about things, we tend to fall back on ‘unhealthy’ coping mechanisms as a way of managing them.
When worrying takes over, the two most common ways of responding are: avoidance and overcompensation.
Avoidance might mean that we stop doing certain things or hold back from taking action. This could be as simple as not going to a party because we’re worried that we’re going to feel awkward or that we’ll struggle to talk to people. At the extreme, we might stop leaving the house entirely (agoraphobia). However severe, it can lead us to miss out on life or turn down opportunities that might benefit us.
Overcompensation can be seen in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where someone might carry out compulsive rituals in order to ward off harm, or health anxiety where someone spends hours scouring the internet looking up symptoms.
This type of thinking can also end up taking a toll on our relationships. We might end up over-relying on our partners for reassurance – reassurance that we should be seeking from within. Or our inability to relax might mean that we’re never truly able to be ourselves.
Beyond the emotional aspects, chronic worrying can also have a devastating impact on our physical health. People who worry a lot are more likely to suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), fatigue, lowered immunity and a barrage of uncomfortable body aches and pains.
How to stop chronic worrying
The goods news is that you do not have to continue living like this. Things that have been learned can also be unlearned – and replaced with healthier, more beneficial thought patterns and ways of responding. Here are a few tips to stop this cycle of worrying in its tracks:
Label your worry – write it out so you can see it loud and clear. The more we brush worries away the more power we give them. Very often when we come face-to-face with them, they’re not as scary as we imagined.
Challenge it – is your worry something you can do something about? Is it helping you or hindering you? Most ‘what if’s’ are pointless worries we have no control over. Acknowledge whether this is something you can take action over on or not.
Face it head-on – if it’s something you can act on, do something about it. If we’re a worrier, we’re probably prone to pushing our worries to the wayside. In many cases, taking action actually helps us prove our worries wrong. Move closer to the things that make you uncomfortable, and you might be pleasantly surprised that they’re not as bad as you thought they were.
Talk it out – anxiety normally doesn’t arrive out of the blue. Most of the time, we need to revisit the past in order to find out where it all started. Once we get to the root, most people find that it naturally starts to dissipate.
How can therapy help?
Vulnerability is part and parcel of the human experience. But in order to live a full life, we need to find some sort of acceptance of this so that we don’t allow fear to dictate our lives.
Unfortunately, even though we might see our thoughts as irrational that alone doesn’t necessarily stop them from happening.
In therapy, you will explore the origin of these thoughts and consider what kind of life you’d be able to build without them. Your therapist will work with you to help you see how these thoughts are exaggerated, and that in the case that they did happen, you would be more than equipped to deal with them. By forming new, healthier ways of relating to the world, we can learn to embrace the unpredictability of life so that we may live a life that is free from fear – and instead rich and full of possibility.