The Many Faces of Anxiety
As we’ve understood, anxiety is an emotion, and it arises when we are faced with a task/thought/situation that we feel unequipped to deal with effectively. This process is rapid, informed by past experiences, and always corresponds to an underlying fear. Although this is the basic process, anxiety itself can manifest in a variety of ways.
There are a multitude of diagnosable anxiety related disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, etc. However, this does not mean that how we feel is irrelevant if we don’t have a diagnosis. It’s possible to have similar thought patterns that cause anxiety or distress, while leading a ‘normal’ (even though there’s no such thing!) life. For example, obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by repetitive, unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images or urges, which need to be responded to, usually by a specific thought or action. Here, the underlying fear might be about causing or being unable to prevent disaster, leading to the person feeling overly responsible for preventing something bad.
How many of us have found ourselves doing things ‘just in case’, or preparing for events that might never happen? The difference here lies in how strongly we feel the anxiety provoking thing might happen. For example, if I forgot to switch off the light before I left for work I might be upset with myself for wasting electricity, or might even fear that it might overheat. It won’t interrupt my day and I can wait till I get home to turn it off. However, for someone with a diagnosis of OCD, it might feel like a matter of life or death. They might have an image of the light causing an electrical fire and the entire building going up in flames. But, this doesn’t feel like a probable thought, it feels like the only possible outcome. This might lead to them feeling incredibly worried or distressed, which can only be allayed by performing a neutralizing action/thought, like going home to check the light.
Lets take a closer look at the underlying pattern here for a moment – a scary thought arises, it is misjudged as being very true or probable, leading to an immense amount of fear or distress about the event, and we feel like we might do to anything to prevent it. The thought keeps coming back to us, and we’re unable to stop this till we do something about it or something changes. Sounds familiar? When we are engaged in this pattern with less intensity, we might call this ‘overthinking’ (that’s another series by itself!).
One way to cope with these thoughts are to ask yourself:
What about this situation feels upsetting or threatening to me?
What about this situation is under my control? If it’s something that I can’t do anything about, what is upsetting me about it?
What changes can I make to this situation to feel better?
In conclusion, one of the ways anxiety manifests is in feeling unsettled, overwhelmed, or feeling like some thoughts are ‘stuck’ in our mind. We can cope with them by understanding what makes the thought so powerful, what we find upsetting about it, how much control we have over the situation, and what we can (or can’t!) do about it.