If you are anything like me, anxiety is not an unfamiliar experience. I surveyed my friends on Instagram and these were some of the responses I received, when asked what causes them to become anxious: “work, travel plans, relational dissonance, time management/feeling rushed, arguing, and texting something vulnerable and receiving silence in return.” Relatable? I thought so too.
So, what is the cause of anxiety? According to Webster’s Dictionary, anxiety is defined as “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill.” While this hits on some of the main components of anxiety, let’s elaborate. Anxiety is always caused by one of two things: overthinking the past or worrying about the future. Sounds simple, yet so many of us struggle with it. These two causes often go hand in hand, but let’s hop into the details
Two causes of anxiety
- Overthinking the past. This can show up in a number of ways, of course. In my own life, I tend to sweat the small things. I will over analyze the wording or lack of punctuation in an email — truly, this might be my number one cause of stress and anxiety! Again, this sounds silly, but we tend to overthink the small details of life and in turn we experience a vast amount of distress over what often ends up being inconsequential. To be fair, many of us will also overthink aspects of our lives that are of far greater significance than strongly worded emails. This often shows up in aspects of our lives that connect to our identity or worth. We tend to overthink past hurts, past opportunities missed, past failures, and so on. Let’s take friendships as an example. Imagine that there is a person who is experiencing loneliness — the most obvious solution to this might be to socialize. However, if this is a person who has either experienced or caused relational hurt in the past, they might hesitate to engage freely and openly with others. They might hold the belief that because they have had friendships go poorly in the past, they are doomed to fail somehow in any future relationship or connection. Thus, this overthinking of the past and ruminating on one’s own shortcomings lends itself to staying “stuck” in one’s current circumstances, out of fear of what would happen if something goes poorly again in the future.
I could go on and on about this, but let’s jump ahead, to…
- Worrying about the future. Predictably, this worry and future-thinking can also show up in a variety of ways. In my own life, I most easily recognize that I am worrying when my thoughts begin with “what if…” Some examples might be: “What if I ask them out to coffee and they say no? What if I do it wrong? What if I make that new recipe and I screw it up somehow?” In counseling, we call harmful ways of thinking either cognitive distortions or thinking errors. The bad and good news is, all of us humans are guilty of having faulty thinking and all of us are capable of recognizing it and changing it (although this change does not happen overnight, unfortunately). When we stress about the future, this is often our attempt to anticipate or control a situation. Mind you, consideration of the future is important — we need to plan in order to be prepared for events and various situations, but when this gets out of control and leads into some “worst case scenario thinking” or “what if’s” (thinking errors!), then there is an opportunity to recognize that anxiety and stress is seeping in and there is an opportunity to manage this disruptive way of thinking.
So, we’ve come to the fun part: coping.
Five ways to deal with anxiety
1. Be present. If you are being present to the current moment, it is very difficult to engage in worry (both past and future). Being present requires our attention. Right now is the only moment that we are able to engage with, and when we are thinking about the past or focused on the future, we miss out on the present. These are best taught in the context of counseling, but “grounding techniques” are my favorite tool for remaining in the present moment. One way to do this is to pay attention to what you can experience through your five senses.
2. Remember that you are not your thoughts. As odd as it may sound, your thoughts do not own you or control you. Your thoughts are something that you have, they are not something that possess you. Therefore, when thoughts about that big presentation that is approaching in two weeks enter your mind at an inopportune time, you can dismiss those thoughts and return to them later.
3. Give yourself space in the day to return to the thoughts that are causing you anxiety. I heard this pointer on The Anxiety Coaches Podcast the other day and really love this technique. If anxiety producing thoughts are entering your mind in a moment that you cannot appropriately deal with them, give yourself permission to return to them later. Perhaps this means you journal before bed or wake up fifteen minutes early in order to allow yourself the time and space to think through some of these stressful thoughts that keep entering your mind.
4. This one tends to sound silly, but find a mantra that works for you. Find a phrase or a prayer to repeat to yourself when you notice that you are over-analyzing the past or experiencing tension about the future. Some examples could be “Don’t sweat the small stuff” or “I am surrendering what I cannot control.”
5. Finally, try something new to manage your anxiety that you have not tried before. Maybe open up with a trusted friend about something you tend to overthink, or grab a pen and paper and write down what you are thinking. Perhaps you have tried coping with anxiety on your own for a while and have realized it is not working — maybe it is time to try out counseling. It would be an honor for myself, or any of the therapists here at Lime Tree to walk you through the circumstances you are facing and help you learn both the roots of your anxiety as well as better ways to cope moving forward.
You don’t have to do this alone.
Lime Tree Counseling offers a variety of services to help you live the life you were meant to live. We offer anxiety counseling, trauma therapy, addiction counseling, Christian counseling, marriage therapy and more. We offer in-office counseling services in Montgomery County Pennsylvania and online counseling in Pennsylvania and online counseling in Colorado. Schedule your initial appointment today!