Challenging Anxious Thinking to Reign in Anxiety
Anxiety can take pretty much most things in life and ramp up those anxious thoughts and feelings until they dominate your mind. And it really could be anything that ignites the anxiety, from a remark someone says, the way someone looks at you or a particular event or situation. Before you know it you just can’t switch off from it and it starts to have an impact on you.
Recently, I had a health ‘thing’ that had all the potential to explode into a great ball of anxiety, and which, I’m pretty certain, would have done so in the past when anxiety was a big part of who I was. It was the sort of health thing that clients have told me about and which can affect them whether they have general anxiety or health anxiety problems.
Now, one thing that clients often remark upon is how calm I always seem. No matter what is going on, they tell me, I seem to have this aura of calmness about me. In fact, only a week or so ago, one client asked me whether anything ever bothers me or makes me anxious!
As much as I admire Sherlock Holmes and his critical reasoning abilities, I’m not a robot and we are all meant to experience emotion that is appropriate to what we are facing. Yet, I also know that by developing the ability for challenging anxious thinking, it is possible to learn how to stop habitual anxiety provoking thought patterns from leading us to a place of massive, unwanted anxiety.
This health thing was perhaps all the more potentially anxiety provoking because it had the word ‘cancer’ in it and that sort of word, and the associations and connotations that go with it, can really set anxiety on fire. All the more potential when you consider that my kids could also have been affected both by what happened to me and in their own right in later life.
Speaking of which, it was a glorious sunny day here yesterday which meant a nice run around Ely, a wander around the lovely local town of St Ives and plenty of fun with the girls. Even this one enjoyed it despite insisting that she was ‘not going to get out of the car because she didn’t want to go out!…
Anxiety & The Cancer Gene
Last year my Aunt, who had been struggling with cancer for many years, was told that she had a ‘cancer gene’ – that is, she had a hereditary gene that inflated the likelihood of getting cancer. Now, of course, as this was something hereditary, that meant that all of us related to her also potentially had this gene, and with it the increased risk of getting cancer.
Sadly my Aunt passed away last week on, quite randomly, would have been my Dad’s birthday (and again, quite bizarrely my Dad passed away a few years ago on what would have been my grandfather’s birthday).
As part of her discovery all of us who are blood relatives were advised to go and get ourselves checked out so that, if we too had the gene, we could be as actively monitored as possible to catch anything as early as possible. The Genetic Team at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge asked for a family history and, when you start looking at these things, you quickly notice that pretty much everyone on my Dad’s side has had, or died of, cancer. We’d always put it down to their cigarette habit, but could the gene have played a role?
And into this pocket of uncertainty about what the gene actually was and meant, about whether it had already impacted on the lives and health of family members and about what would it mean to me if I did have it (not to mention my kids), is where anxiety always has the potential to dig in, stick and create its own anxious momentum.
If you habitually have the tendency to catastrophise, to find your mind fills with worst case scenarios and to project forward into a dreaded future outcome, that pocket of uncertainty may be all that it takes to escalate your anxiety. Those thoughts may start to grow like a snowball in your mind and you may even have trouble switching off from them. All those anxious emotions make your thinking much more black and white and it may almost seem that the worst case is certain to happen.
In a short space of time, the possibility of having a cancer promoting gene, could have mentally and emotionally, led to full flow anxiety and the worry that I had the gene (or even some form of cancer already), that I wouldn’t be able to work and support my family, even thoughts of how would my family cope without me. And of course, anxiety can go from your own funeral and the negative impact on those around you, to the same thing happening to the kids and the cancer getting them too.
Which is why, and knowing that my imagination can really run wild if I let it, I deliberately used some of the anxious thought challenges below. If you want to stay calm, know your thinking pattern tendencies, catch your thinking as early as possible and mentally stop it and refocus it before anxiety even gets the chance to consider grabbing that scenario and running with it.
I’m not going to say that I didn’t think about the gene and what it might mean for me and others, yet certainly it was possible to contemplate and think about it without any real worry or anxiety whatsoever (to the point that when I noticed my genetics appointment in my diary it came as a bit or a surprise because I hadn’t been thinking about any of it for so long).
Stop Anxious Thinking Patterns & Control Your Mind
Now just in case anyone is thinking that it’s ok for me to write all this because I don’t have anxiety, please remember that I’ve been there. I’ve experienced anxiety so strong it made me cry to force myself out of the front door. My anxiety used to be so bad that I’d avoid people, places and situations if it they had the potential to make me anxious. There were times I disliked myself so much that I would punch myself until I physically hurt.
The only reason I mention this is because if I can learn how to recognise my thinking patterns and do something about them if they are anxious, negative and unhelpful, then so can you. None of us gets this right 100% of the time, yet sometimes is better than no-times.
To be honest, from day one of this news I almost made it my mantra to repeat ‘it is what it is’ anytime the cancer gene or anything to do with it was mentioned. After all, no amount of anxiety, worry or stress would change whether I did have the gene or not. It’s not like I could do anything about it one way or the other.
So off I trotted to my genetics appointment and I don’t think the genetics person knew what to say or what to do with me. She was so used to anxiety, dread and worry that someone saying ‘it’ll be what it’ll be’ didn’t seem to be part of the script. I don’t think she was quite used to, or prepared for, someone being so tuned in to facts rather than emotions! As she told me all about the increased risks of certain types of cancer if I had the gene and how it could be passed onto my kids, I sat there quite interested and quite calm. If I didn’t have it I didn’t even need to know any of this stuff and if I did have the gene then there would be plenty of time to learn more about what that meant once I had the result in my hand.
Now as it turns out, I had the blood test, waited four weeks for the results and I don’t have the gene anyway. Which of course just confirms that any worry and anxiety would have been a bit of a waste of time and energy wouldn’t it?
As well as using my usual strategies such as exercise, doing fun stuff with the kids, finding time to relax and making sure I get enough sleep, I also used some thought questioning techniques that we often call upon within cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy. Sometimes these are called Socratic questions. Rather than letting thoughts wander through our minds and just going with them and treating them all as facts, we want to develop ways to challenge the stuff that habitually drifts through our minds before we start to run with them.
Often when we think something we mentally treat it as fact or give it more weight and focus that it really warrants. The more we think about it the more ‘real’ and concrete it becomes for us until we lose sight of the fact that it may just be stuff we routinely make up in our minds. One way we can challenge our thoughts is to consider, ‘is that thought completely rational and logical?’ I mean, if someone else told us they were thinking the same thing, would you consider it to be a logical and rational thing? Spot that unwanted thought, dispute it and move on to something more helpful.
Another favourite of mine is to ask ‘Where is the evidence for my belief?’ and ‘What evidence is there for and against that belief? We can think all sorts of stuff from the logical and rational to fantasy and even absurd. By going back to look for evidence we can spot if we are guilty of perhaps ‘lazy thinking’ and of just thinking the same things we’ve picked up through our lives without applying critical reasoning to it. We want to remember that thoughts are usually just perceptions and opinions and not necessarily facts.
Using these with my cancer gene example meant that I could focus on facts (that I may have a cancer gene but there was nothing I could do about it one way or another) and that there was no evidence for thinking anything until I had the ‘evidence’ in the form of the test result.
In fact, another of these questions ask us to consider, ‘Am I confusing a thought with a fact?’ Anxiety can lead us to many thoughts yet often our imagination takes them further and further away from evidence and fact and, as the anxiety and dread increase, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact and evidence and to get mentally lost in a world of worst case outcomes rather than dealing with things in the here and now.
As part of challenging anxious thinking, you can ask yourself, ‘Would a scientist agree with your evidence and reasoning?’ and ‘would your friends and colleagues agree with that statement?’ to gain alternative perspectives.
Another favourite of mine for challenging anxious thinking involves asking yourself what’s the best that could happen? What’s the worst that could happen? And then realistically, what’s most likely to happen? And if the worst really did happen, what could you do about it? Often we neglect to consider that, in the midst of anxiety, there are things we can do about things that may stop, mitigate or dilute the imagined outcome. After all, even cancer has treatment options available and more and more people get through it.
There are many other things you could ask yourself to help you recognise any anxious thoughts for what they are and to challenge and change them into more helpful things. And of course, dealing with, and challenging anxious thinking is easier if we are calmer so try and catch them early before too much emotion is attached, or use breathing techniques and other calming methods regularly (you can get a free hypnosis download to help you relax here: Rapid Relaxation Hypnosis Download).
Above all, perhaps the main things we should all keep in mind is that our thoughts are not necessarily facts. They may be perceptions, opinions, habitual patterns, things we think because we’ve always thought them, things learnt from others and, let’s be honest, sometimes downright absurd and devoid of reality. By recognising anxious thoughts for what they are you can do something about them that means that you too will find yourself being more and more calm no matter what comes your way.
To your success
Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket
Like to read more about anxiety and anxiety management? You can read more of my articles here: Anxiety & Worry
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