We all experience feelings of anxiety. There is nothing wrong or bad about anxiety itself, it is the degree to which we experience anxiety, how often it happens and the kinds of situations that trigger this emotion that can cause problems for us.

Research tells us that some degree of anxiety and stress is helpful, motivating us to do things - paying that important bill, running across the road in time when we cross on a red light or preparing for a job interview. As human beings if we did not have anxiety from time to time, we would have little motivation or drive to move forward or make changes in our lives. But it is when worry or stress increases too much, that we can run into problems.

Many people may avoid particular situations because they feel anxious; this is of course a very understandable way to cope. A person might avoid meeting new people, travelling on the underground or train, or going to busy crowded places. Some people may not even feel able to leave their homes. But avoidance in the long run can make problems much worse, as this could keep the anxiety going. 

So, why me? What keeps my problem with anxiety going?

This question is a big one and not so easy to answer. The way we see the world and our deep down beliefs about our self as a person, are partly based upon the experiences that we had growing up, the messages that we received during our childhood from our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and so on.

Perhaps we have learnt anxious thinking or behaviour through our parents. We may have received criticism from our parents and this in turn means that we learn to be critical towards ourselves too. There may have been difficult events in our lives, such as bullying or changing schools a lot, a relationship that didn’t work out, a divorce perhaps. All of these things help build a picture of how we see ourselves. 

Sometimes our beliefs, can surface within our thoughts: 'I'm a bad person/worthless/not good enough'. But we can have positive beliefs about ourselves too of course. In really simple terms, the more positive experiences we have had, the more likely that we will have positive beliefs about ourselves. The way that we see a problem can have a big effect on how we experience it. One person may see it as an impending disaster, for another it could be a problem to be solved and overcome. It’s not the situation itself that causes us distress, it’s how we perceive the situation, the meaning we attach to the situation. Which is based upon our deep down beliefs about ourselves and the kinds of thoughts we experience.

In CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) we take a closer look at the relationship between our thinking, feelings, and behaviour to see how all of these fit together and can keep our anxiety going. Take Joe, for example, for whom taking the Underground induces anxiety. The situation is external to Joe, and he interprets it as stressful: 'I'm not going to be able to cope, I'll get anxious. What if people notice?' These thoughts create feelings of panic, fear and embarrassment. These feelings trigger a physical response; Joe's heart is beating fast, he feels hot and shaky. These physical responses spur us into action and the last thing we see is the behaviour: Joe moves to the closest seat to the door and gets off the train early.   

Thinking in this way keeps Joe’s anxiety going and his behaviour strengthens his anxiety. As Joe left the train four stops earlier this strengthened his thought that he wouldn’t be able to cope in the situation. He never got to find out if he could actually cope with his anxiety. Think back to a recent situation where you felt worry or anxiety and have a go at mapping out your own journey through thoughts, feelings and behaviours. What do you notice? What can you learn from this? Try this out a few times with different situations. 

If you find this activity helpful and would like to talk to a therapist, you can find a therapist for anxiety here.