This article was written specifically for people who suffer from anxiety disorders or depression. But it will be of interest to anyone wishing to worry less and live a calmer, more peaceful life.
If you suffer from anxiety or depression you might feel isolated and misunderstood, without anyone to talk to and desperate for a way out of this situation. I felt like this some years ago. A few days after my 18th birthday, my father died of cancer. Ever since, whenever I felt a bit weird or some pain in my body, I was worried that I had cancer.
I had a chronic cough for two years and no doctor was able to find the cause. For me it was obvious: it was a tumor that was too small to be seen on x-rays. I prepared myself to die. I started to have less and less energy and stayed in bed for several days at a time. My thoughts were always racing, I had trouble sleeping. Simply put, I just felt miserable and had not only problems with anxiety but also severe depression.
There were other episodes when I thought I had other types of cancer, and my anxiety started to affect not just my work but my relationship. When I was worried my girlfriend was worried, too. She was suffering along with me, which only made me feel worse.
I had to find a way to overcome this anxiety and get my life back under control, so I started to read everything I could about anxiety. I have been always interested in Psychology, so I read books and studies in this field, along with research in the field of neuroscience.
Here is what I found that enabled me to overcome my cancer phobia:
1. What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal and healthy reaction to certain situations. But when you suffer from anxiety disorders, your response to anything that triggers anxiety is exaggerated and out of proportion. Or you develop an anxiety response to things that shouldn’t trigger anxiety. Anxiety is a series of changes in the body that alter the way you think and behave and enable you to deal with threat or danger. In a crisis it can save your life.
But today you do not have to worry about being eaten by a sawtooth tiger while walking in the park. Our society has changed, yet your body responds to everything you perceive as a threat just as if that sawtooth tiger were really after you.
2. Where does anxiety come from?
It is true that some people have a lower anxiety threshold than others. There is a genetic component in anxiety, but most of it is learned. Think about it: we are just a body with something called mind that more or less controls it. How you think and what you perceive as good or bad, peaceful or harmful all depends on your past experiences. Otherwise everyone would react in the same way to the same situations and that’s simply not the case. Even twins that look identical develop different belief systems and react differently to situations. At some point in your life we have learned that fire is hot and can be harmful. So we avoid fire and getting burned.
But our mind is tricky. Everything you believe is considered real by your mind no matter how real it actually is. If you have heard that people often get robbed in parking lots but never heard that people are more likely to get robbed in parks, you will be more anxious while walking the parking lot than you would be in the park. We all live in our own version of reality and this version can sometimes be out of whack. But that’s no problem, because there are ways to fix this.
3. How does this learning work?
Whenever we learn something new, nerve cells in our brain, so-called neurons, get together and form pathways. On the first day in a new country, for example, you might hear that people often get robbed in parking lots, and so you save this information in your brain. A group of neurons create a path for that information in your brain. These neurons are also connected to related pathways – for example, your idea of what a parking lot looks like, or what happens during a robbery. So you might think about the threat of being robbed the next time you visit a parking lot, or you might think about a parking lot the next time you hear about someone getting robbed.
Now let’s say that the following week you hear that somebody got robbed in a parking lot again – but you missed the other five news reports about someone getting robbed in a park.
So now the “people get robbed in parking lots” pathway in your brain is activated, the connections between those neurons grow stronger, and the small pathway that existed before grows and becomes a little road or even a highway. It also forms more connections to other pathways. The stronger the pathway, the more easily it will be activated in the future. The more you hear about robberies, the stronger your anxiety about parking lots.
The reality might be completely different – but because you didn’t hear about people getting robbed in parks, you are perfectly calm while walking in parks, but tense and anxious in parking lots.
Scientists can now observe how different areas of the brain change depending on what you do or learn. A recent study showed that the part of the brain that is responsible for the movement and coordination of your fingers grows in size if you do piano exercises for a few weeks for two hours every day.
4. How to overcome anxiety?
So basically there are these neuron highways in your brain that get easily activated in certain situations that trigger anxiety.
A crucial step to overcoming anxiety is to make these highways smaller. You have to dissolve the overly developed anxiety connections in your brain and unlearn harmful ways of thinking.
You can learn this in the free Psychology Essentials Course on this website. What you learn is based on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and has helped thousands of people overcome their anxiety and return to a happy and relaxed life.
This course is not the be-all and end-all. If you feel that it doesn’t work for you, you might want to look for a CBT therapist in your area.
Here is an overview of what you will learn in the Psychology Essentials Course:
- 1. How your mind works and how thoughts trigger feelings (including anxiety).
- 2. How to identify the underlying thoughts that cause your anxiety.
- 3. How to deal with those thoughts and observe them instead of getting caught up in them. This helps you let go of the thoughts and the anxiety they bring.
- 4. How to stop thinking about the same things over and over. This allows you to break the anxiety cycle in which your worries about worrying makes you feel worse.