Matters of the Mind: Understand anxiety to conquer it



Part I

Allow me to attempt an explanation of this ubiquitous human emotion. One that is unique in manifestation, impacted by diversity and demography, culture and country. One that is helpful and functional at times but maladaptive and debilitating too. One that can drive us to achieve, fight, survive and win, while also push us into an endless tunnel of restlessness, paralysing panic and defeat. An emotion that encompasses both cognition and behaviour, and is both the cause and effect of psychological, social, occupational, biological and relationship stress.

The word anxiety comes from “anxietas” in Latin, which means to choke, throttle and trouble. Sounds familiar. This is because anxiety is a normal human emotion, felt by all at some point or the other. It can be adaptive when balanced, by stimulating an anticipatory response to a challenge or threat. Beyond an invisible, vague and dynamic threshold, anxiety can cause an individual much distress and dysfunctionality. Anxiety is considered pathological or a diagnosable disease when it is caused in the absence of a rational and real trigger, when it is out of proportion to the stress in duration or severity, and when it results in significant disturbance in functionality and causes impairment.

Anxiety has been part of our lives. We know it, but we struggle with it. Because it helps us, in flight or fight, or being prepared in a tough situation. We depend upon it.

Where does this come from and implant itself inside of us? The usual guess is that anxiety gets triggered by threatening or difficult life events or challenges. I like working with perceptions and emotions, plain logic and reason are a stretch in that space, but I do get this that if any difficulty was to cause anxiety, it should have done so in all of us.

Let’s try this. Take a deep breath and fully exhale. Spare a moment to turn inwards, quieten down and listen. Do you hear your mind talking to you? A voice that’s is saying “hurry up with this, you are going to be late for your meeting”, or “this coffee is cold already” or “I did not sleep well at all last night”, while you also read and assimilate this article. Register this voice that incessantly talks to us about related or unrelated situations at any given moment. It is this voice or self-talk as cognitive psychologists call it, that is the cause of our stress, anxiety or any other emotion we feel.

Sometime in December 2019, in a city called Wuhan in southeast China, unusual cases of pneumonia leading to death got reported. Between confusion, conspiracy theories, underestimation, unpreparedness and hangovers of a new year then eagerly awaited, the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread stealthily across the world becoming a global health and life threat within days.

The pandemic has since had a significant impact on global mental health. As worrisome reports of increased numbers in anxiety disorders, somatization, established depression, substance use and anger causing harm to self or others surface, researchers, psychologists and mental health practitioners anticipate and warn against mental health diseases being the next big health battle to be faced by the world.

Monitoring the population’s mental health during this pandemic needs to be an absolute priority! So who needs to monitor this and how? Governments and health organisations can kickstart studies and research, (permissions for which will take a couple of years) leading to eye-opening conclusive and quantifiable findings. These quantities will be us, our communities, our children! It is a time not just to collect data, but to take responsibility to change and improve it while we still can.

While external events, others’ ill-treatment of us, and a pandemic are genuine triggers, it is time and truly imperative that we recognise and establish that what makes us anxious is our inner voice, whether on our way to a party, a meeting or surviving a pandemic, our thoughts can influence our emotional and behavioural consequences, making us active participants in taking care of our mental health.

You may argue that my boyfriend, my mother, my wife, my kids, my boss, my career, my loan or my life are particularly hard and the cause of my stress.

And I can vehemently refute because I have seen twins with the same (abusive) parent being very different in their levels of stress and anxiety. I have worked with wives of alcoholics, subjected to domestic violence who have very diverse responses to the same treatment.

So I apologise for the spoiler alert, taking away the convenience of blame and nudging you into proactive self-work.

Our mental dialogue and/or our mental pictures in the form of schemas, models or fantasies in the face of triggers, putting meaning to it, perceiving it with irrationalities, rigidities and baggage, elicits difficult emotions, contributes to our stress, elevating cortisol and adrenaline and results in physical and/or mental illness.

Anxiety is an emotion that derives from thoughts about the future. The inner dialogue usually starts with “what if”. We know we need help when:

* It interferes with functionality- sleep, appetite, working, intimacy, cooking, parenting etc

* We perceive danger when actually we are presently safe.

The fundamental irrational thoughts that lead to anxiety are that of control/perfection and of demanding certainty or guarantee in future. We want the above, regarding various aspects in life such as health, body image, our relationships, careers, finance, success, destiny, environment, climate or all of the above! You see, neither can we control the future nor others. This is where we get “sick” attempting and scrambling to control, seeking reassurances and eventually depleting our energy and sanity over that which was never in our hands.

Anxiety is an emotion we cannot do without. While a meeting for a big pitch, a paper presentation, a job interview, a pandemic require careful consideration, preparation, concern and functional worry to achieve certain results, the fear of not achieving that exact result becomes a problem. Self-work, mindfulness, conscious cognition and neuro-plasticity are important and empowering healing tools for us to work with to manage anxiety.

Stay tuned to understand these approaches to cope with anxiety in my next installment.

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