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Changing the thoughts that create anxiety

At 3am, we may sometimes find ourselves metaphorically gazing into a crystal ball, convincing ourselves that we can see into the future. Wondering and worrying about everything, asking ‘what ifs’, we disappear into a rabbit hole of panic for things that we imagine are going to go wrong.

We take a turn in that dark hole that leads us into the unchangeable past, and here we find ourselves ruminating, looking back into yesterday or yesteryear, regretting and judging our wrong turns. Our imagination and thoughts have gone AWOL.

By breakfast, we may already be preparing for three things that haven’t even happened yet! And after a big mug of coffee, we’ve wished we didn’t do or say three things we have already done!

We may find that some emotions have been aroused by all these worries. Emotions like sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, or a feeling of helplessness.

By the end of the day, we might notice some tension in our neck or a headache and, without meaning to, we find ourselves trapped in a spiral of worrying thoughts and anxieties, difficult emotions and some physical tension. And the culprit? Too much worry and a misuse of our imagination.

A bit of worry is perfectly healthy, especially if we actually do something about it, like prepare a plan or act. We have some capacity for predicting the future, and this enables us to foresee problems in advance and find ways to overcome or circumvent them. That’s what worry is for.

We should not stop caring about how things might turn out but, instead of over worrying, we might prepare ourselves as best we can for future situations.

But when we start worrying about things that have happened or that may happen and we cannot plan for, or when we feel things are out of our control, we may become anxious and afraid.

Step 1: Understanding the science of what’s happening in our brains When the worries become regular and overwhelming, our brain kicks into action to help us get out of this state. Our brain activates our internal alarm system (fight or flight), which is there to help us. The alarm system prepares the body to fight off the perceived threat or to run from it. However, in this situation, we don’t act because it is thoughts and not a predator that is activating the alarm system.

When the body acts, like fighting off or running from the predator, the brain recognises the threat has been dealt with and the alarm system switches off. When the body does not act, we find our bodies remain in a state of false alarm, a state of persistent and consistent alarm. This is anxiety.

Step 2: Get the worries out It’s also really important to not let worries stay in our heads. When we just think about worry, it can run away with us. When we write them down, say them out loud, we can slow them down and face our worries one by one. This way we control our reaction to the worries. Always remember the golden rule – we may not be in control of our situations, but we can control our reactions to them.

Step 3: Identify the worries in your control 1. Ask yourself, ‘is this worry about a current problem or a hypothetical situation?’ Or ‘can I do something about this?’

2. If the answer is yes. Make an action plan addressing ‘what to do’, ‘when to do it’ and ‘how to do it’.

3. If the issue is a hypothetical situation and ‘there is nothing I can do’, let the worry go. If you cannot let it go, go to step 4.

Step 4: Using our imagination in a useful way Another way out of the rabbit hole is to use our imagination in a useful way. When we imagine danger, we feel like we’re in danger. If we pay attention to the present moment, we notice we are actually safe in the present moment.

We could imagine or reflect upon our thoughts of success and safety, and when we have felt peaceful, and bring these to the present moment. This could be done by imagining when we have handled situations really well, calmly and with strength, or imagining the situation which is causing us some distress and imagining handling it using our resources. Imagine managing the previously stressful or imagined stressful situation well, peacefully, calmly and successfully.

To feel safe, we need to feel and hold a belief in our ability to handle external difficulties. Of course, we know we don’t have control over everything in our lives, but we focus our efforts and energy on what is in the realm of our control. So, we imagine ourselves facing challenges and handling them with resilience, we imagine ourselves facing a problem and using our skills, resources and support network to solve it.

Just as we feel we are in danger when we imagine we are in danger, so it follows that we feel safe and in control when we imagine we are in control. We can imagine this in our minds or we can write down how we imagine we deal with the situation. Then read out what we have written or record it, and listen to this new way of dealing with the situation over and over again.

We rehearse and practice a sense of control and, after time, instead of becoming afraid of things to come, or anxious about things that have passed, we feel more in charge, brave and confident.

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