Why Am I Feeling Anxious?

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Anxiety: It Has A Lot To Do With What You’re Thinking And How You’re Thinking It

BY BRITTANY MCGILL

People seek psychological support because they’re experiencing some level of anxiety, unease, or stress often accompanied by other symptoms like feeling irritable or on edge, a racing heart, sweating, difficulty sleeping…..the list goes on. It’s usually pretty easy to tell when you’re feeling anxious or stressed, but it’s not always as easy to identify why you’re feeling that way.

Don't know why you're anxious? Look at your thoughts...

Don’t know why you’re anxious? Look at your thoughts…

As psychologists, we’re always interested in the relationship between your thoughts and feelings. As well as assuming that anxiety has genetic and biological origins (which you can’t really do much about), we also assume that how you think about and interpret situations plays a significant role in how anxious you feel.

Most of your thoughts or interpretations are automatic. For example, say you’re on a bushwalk and you see a snake. Your body immediately kicks into gear, your heart starts racing and you get the urge to run…

If we break things down even further, what your brain has done in that split second is very clever. It’s (1) assessed the situation (2) detected a threat and (3) activated your body’s helpful ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which in situations like that, might save your life.

BUT…anxiety can become problematic when your fight-or-flight response switches on at inappropriate times, like before a big presentation at work or in a social situation. Your head gets stuck on thoughts like “what If I stumble over my words?” or “what if other people see I’m anxious – they’ll think I’m stupid and I won’t be considered for promotions”.

In fact, when you’re anxious you’re more prone to making all kinds of anxious thinking errors. You’re much more likely to

• Overestimate how likely it is that something ‘bad’ will happen
• Overestimate how bad it will be if that something bad did happen
• Underestimate our ability to cope with stressful events

When you think in this way you start to feel anxious and your brain makes the mistake of thinking that you’re about to enter a dangerous or life threatening situation. Your body kicks into gear and your fight-or-flight response is switched on, but it’s really a false alarm. You’re not in any real danger.

A really crucial part of managing anxiety is learning to identify and challenge your anxious thoughts so you can replace them with more realistic and helpful thoughts. A clinical psychologist can assist you in developing this important skill.

Brittany McGill is a clinical psychologist registrar who completed her postgraduate clinical training at the University of New South Wales. She is interested in anxiety and mood disorders across the lifespan and uses cognitive-behavioural and other evidence-based strategies to help people achieve positive change in their lives.


 

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