Anxiety is an area in which our human imagination is often torturing us. Unlike other animals, humans spend a great deal of time thinking about and imagining things which aren't actually happening. Our minds believe they are keeping us safe by imagining things which might go wrong. The idea is that by imagining these things, we can take steps to prevent them.
The problem is, for many of us, our minds get stuck in this mode, imaginging bad things happening, and then imagining how we can prevent them. As this becomes a mental habit, scanning the world for threat and danger can become automatic; it can become what our mind simply does whenever it isn't busy doing something else.
Anxiety typically takes one of two forms: The more acute form of anxiety is a fear that comes in bursts, a fear that may be tied to certain situations, like public speaking, or social gatherings.
The more chronic form of anxiety involves feeling somewhat anxious all the time. Sometimes this takes the form of being "a worrier," and constantly thinking of dangers and problems. Other times it feels like chronic stress, that the demands of your job or your life are unrelenting and force you to be pushing hard all the time.
This can feel overwhelming. On a physical level, anxiety and stress produce a mild version of the "fight or flight" response. All of the stress hormones are released in a slow, but continuous way. Blood pressure and muscle tension rise, digestion is altered, and the entire system runs in a state of over-arousal. As you might expect, our bodies aren't built to do this.
In the same way that depression is tied to all of your life experiences related to sadness, anxiety can be connected to all of your life experiences related to fear, including those related to not feeling safe, and to fears of failure or of not being good enough.
Therapy for anxiety often works on both how to manage external circumstances and stressors, and how to respond to your deeper internal fears.
The "external" part of therapy for anxiety can be about getting through stressful circumstances, making careful choices, figuring out how to calm yourself when anxious, how to delegate, to pace yourself, and to avoid getting yourself into situations in which too much is expected.
The "internal" part of therapy for anxiety goes deeper because it usually involves fears that are strongly held. It might include these:
- The sense that success and performance are all that counts. The feeling that you can't keep performing forever, and that no amount of success makes the fear of failure go away.
- The fear that others won't love you. Often this turns into the sense that you can be wanted if you take care of of everything and everyone, and the fear that you'll be unwanted if you are ever weak or needy.
- A sense that the world is an unkind and unsafe place, and that any feeling of safety is temporary and unreliable. This can often develop if you did not feel safe or did not feel as if things were under control during your upbringing.