There is no question that there are life situations that trigger anxiety for many of us. It may be a job interview, going on a date for the first time, traveling, public speaking, going to a networking event, attending a retreat, or just from doing something that you haven’t done before. Then there are experiences that we have that are anxiety provoking because of the thoughts we have, or as I like to describe it, what we tell ourselves or the stories we create.
The What If’s
When we have the thought that begins with, What if? It automatically tends to trigger anxiety or fear, or something that we create that is anxiety producing as opposed to anxiety reducing. Generally, when we say What if it is because of some kind of negative thought. Rarely do we create anxiety for ourselves by worrying about a potential positive occurrence. This is anxiety that is self-created by thoughts such as…
- What if I fail this exam?
- What if he or she gets angry at me when I say no?
- What if I don’t get the job?
- What if I do it wrong?
- What if I’m not good at being a parent?
- What if I can’t…
- What if I’m not good enough at…
How Feelings Influence Our Behavior
What we think affects how we feel, and then what we feel affects how we behave. What I mean by this is that what we tell ourselves, or the thoughts that we have, actually trigger the anxiety. For example, if we are thinking, “What if I go on this job interview and say the wrong thing?” We are producing anxiety about something that could happen in the future, but it may not even occur. Thus, these thoughts are anxiety provoking and we may self-create unnecessary worry.
One approach to reduce this unwarranted anxiety is to utilize the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Utilizing CBT techniques can be very helpful with identifying thoughts that are anxiety provoking to develop coping strategies to alter these unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that may cause anxiety. Working with a psychotherapist utilizing CBT may help to identify and decrease negative thought patterns thus shifting from the feeling of anxiety to a more comfortable feeling state.
Although there is a difference between feeling anxiety because of a life circumstance and feeling anxiety due to what we tell ourselves. It is important to first find a way to differentiate these because how we deal with these feelings will be different.
Differentiating between Real and Self-Created Anxiety
If we are feeling anxiety or fear because we are preparing to deal with a significant life-changing situation such as sitting for the bar exam, or medical boards, it is natural and understandable to feel some level of nervousness even for those who don’t usually struggle with anxiety. However, if we are now saying to ourselves I’m going to fail, or, I can’t possibly pass this exam, then the anxiety experienced is directly connected with what we are thinking.
It is important to try to differentiate between anxiety or fear because of something that’s really happening, or something that is self-created. If the anxiety is due to something that is really occurring in our lives, then feeling it and working on ways to release the anxiety would be the most effective way to deal with this.
However, if the anxiety, or fear, or any other feeling, is based on the stories we tell ourselves, then we would deal with this differently. That’s why it’s important to differentiate if what we are feeling is based on what’s happening, or the stories we are telling ourselves.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Telling ourselves stories about what may, or may not, happen in a situation, may be an ongoing pattern, or this may occur periodically. When storytelling occurs periodically, it is most likely occurring because of special conditions that trigger these thoughts. We might find that when we are tired, hungry, overwhelmed, angry, lonely, or sad, that we tend to tell ourselves stories that are of a negative nature and thus then trigger anxiety.
So how can we determine what stimulates these periodic thoughts?
- What may be helpful is to check in and ask, “What is happening for me in this moment that may be triggering this thought?”
- Examine what’s happening emotionally, physically, spiritually and situationally.
- I encourage you to refrain from asking, “Why am I doing this?” This tends to have a judgmental tone and keeps us in our heads and in an analytical loop. Instead tune into our bodies and what’s happening inside of us in the moment, and then ask, “What’s going on for me right now?”
When telling ourselves stories is ongoing, this same process can be followed.
We might also want to consider writing down what we discover as we tune into ourselves. Writing down our thoughts and feelings might help to determine if there are identifiable patterns for us that trigger negative story telling. For example
I tend to have these thoughts…
- When I have an argument with my partner
- When my children misbehave
- When my mother asks me to do three things when I already have ten things to do
- When I am given a new project at work that I don’t feel sufficiently competent
- The night before a big test
- Before the kid’s doctor appointment
Discovering Our Triggers
When we’re writing these experiences and thoughts down, a daily or weekly review may clue us in to the kind of life situations that may trigger storytelling and self-created anxiety. Becoming more aware of what is causing our anxiety is helpful because not knowing the source of the anxiety can often make it worse. Identifying our triggers can enable us to become more confident that we can cope more effectively. It may also illuminate certain dynamics and empower us to address the stressor. We might determine that:
I tend to tell myself stories when… I feel overwhelmed, or when I am experiencing fear, or when I feel out of control.
Studies suggest that words can help us understand and absorb the traumatic event and eventually put it behind us. It can give us a sense of relief and control.Ron Breazeale, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Look for Physical Signs of Anxiety
For some of us noticing our thoughts may be more challenging than noticing the anxiety we experience in our bodies. We may suddenly notice that we are experiencing anxiety in our stomach or our solar plexus, or our anxiety may take the form of a shaking leg, a tick or tension in our neck. For some of us, we may notice this first as opposed to the thought we have. So, we can review what we’ve written and begin to track back to when this discomfort started and ask ourselves, “What was I thinking just before this anxiety kicked in?”
Let Us Help You with Your Story
If you struggle with anxiety, speaking with a trusted psychotherapist at Nassau Guidance and Counseling located on Long Island can help. Our licensed therapists have helped many people find methods to determine if anxiety is self-created, or situationally based, but most importantly, how to work through and cope with it so you may live a more fulfilling and stress free life.