Disclaimer: Anyone who’s followed me for any length of time knows I’d be the first to tell you that if you see a claim that says something like “be free from anxiety without doing anything!” you should leave and never come back. Which is super ironic in that’s exactly what I’m about to tell you in this post. However, if you bear with me, I promise that what I’ve learned and seen work in my own life is not akin to some fake “overnight success” story where if you just send me all your money I’ll tell you the secret! Not in the least. First of all, I don’t want your money. Second of all, the “secret” if you will, is actually just common sense. But you know how common sense is–not common unless you actually know it. Sadly, most of us have grown up being taught the exact opposite of what I’m about to tell you.
Sooooo…if you haven’t been scared off yet and you trust me to deliver on the goods, then the worst that will happen is you’ll think I’m a quack and move on. The BEST is you’ll hear something that just might possibly change your life.
Intrigued? Then please continue…
I’ve thought of myself as a shy person for as far back as I can remember. As a result of my shyness, I was never a fan of change. Change seemed to bring scary new situations with scary new people. Taking away what I was used to and replacing it with a whole bunch of unknowns was often more than I could bear–and I’d often have a melt down.
Like that time in first grade when my teacher was absent and our entire class was moved to the cafeteria with a bunch of strange kids I didn’t recognize. The belly ache I got that day (and subsequent crying jag that accompanied it) came back every morning for the rest of that school year. In my young, anxiety-laden mind, I never knew what uncertainty might befall me each day.
Then there was the time in 6th grade when for some unknown reason the school decided that I should be removed from my current classes on the first floor with kids who I’d known for years, to the second floor (where I had never ventured) with all new kids who I’d never seen before. I still remember how they all looked kind of like monsters to me. I ended up flunking most of my classes that semester and got into big trouble at home, but I’m not sure if my parents ever knew what had triggered the downward spiral. Come to think of it, I pretty much lost interest in school from that time on. While I didn’t continue to get F’s and D’s I never did live up to my potential in school and became a mostly C student.
As an adult, I don’t recall any specific panic attacks, but I continued to be a creature of habit. As long as my days went smoothly, I was fine. But we all know how often that happens! Have you ever noticed how much change and uncertainty we live with every moment of every day? I guess that explains why I was always in a low level state of anxiety without ever really noticing.
What I also didn’t realize was I had naturally developed all sorts of coping mechanisms to deal with my anxiety. I would get immersed in the things and people that I liked, and avoid those that I didn’t. If I had to do things I didn’t like, having a few drinks before, during and/or after, certainly seemed to help.
Suffice it to say, I was managing my anxiety fairly well without realizing it, but not always in the most constructive ways. The problem (beyond the obvious) was that the relief was always temporary. Having a new best friend was great, until something happened and we were no longer besties. Drinking alcohol was great, but the side effects–not so much.
My unconscious methods for escaping my anxious feelings (which most of the time I didn’t realize I had) were never good long-term solutions.
In my quest to lose weight and get healthy, I learned that I’m not all of the things I always thought I was. Seeing that I could transform into a completely different person in a relatively short time opened up space within me to see all sorts of things about myself that I never could have seen before. So when I stumbled onto a teaching that explained how all of our experiences of life are created through our thoughts, I was ready, willing and able to understand it. (Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t get it the first dozen or so times that I heard it–and you may not either–but it did finally sink in!)
How This Relates to Anxiety
First we need to look at what anxiety actually is.
In very simple terms, anxiety is comprised of the uncomfortable physical feelings which are caused by conscious or unconscious thoughts. Basically, thoughts occur in our minds, followed immediately (seemingly instantaneously) with the feelings of nervousness and/or anxiousness. (Incidentally, according to my neuroscientist son, the thought -> feeling connection is backed up by current brain research.)
Anxiety can physically manifest in a variety of ways such as jitters, heart palpitations, stomach aches, flushness, tightness in the chest, sweating, shortness of breath, ticks or other repetitive movements, headaches, high blood pressure and probably many other ways I haven’t thought about yet. I personally tend to get a racing heart and sometimes headaches and/or stomach aches.
The causes of anxiety are numerous, but basically it boils down to this:
Our bodies are designed to produce certain chemicals during times of danger to keep us alert and safe (flight or fight response). So initially when we perceive something as scary (whether it is or isn’t), the flood of chemicals is released into the body. We only have to think something is scary for this to happen.
Have you ever thought there was a spider or some creepy bug right near you only to realize it was just a piece of lint or something? The fact that you thought it was a bug triggered the chemicals anyway, even though in reality there was no threat.
This is what always happens when we think there’s something to be scared of. The chemicals flow, our heart races, and we now feel anxious.
But remember: The anxious feelings originated from the initial scary thought.
Because the chemicals are released so quickly in our bodies, we often don’t realize or notice that we first had a thought about the situation.
Instead, we believe that the outside event is what caused our anxious feelings.
But it didn’t.
Feelings are only ever caused by our thoughts.
Therefore what we’re scared of is simply learned thoughts. i.e., Something once happened, we got nervous or scared so we associate that feeling with the event. In the future when that or a similar event occurs we end up reacting the same way via a conditioned thought/feeling response.
It becomes like a reflex.
For me, just knowing that the things happening in my life cannot in any way shape or form actually cause my anxiety–that only my thoughts about what’s happening can cause it–is extremely freeing!
I’m sure your next question is: how do I know that the things happening in my life aren’t what’s causing my anxiety?
For one thing, if events and situations outside of ourselves could cause anxiety then everyone would be fearful of the same things. And yet, as far as I know there are no universal fears. Some people can speak in public while others are terrified. Some people love to network in a crowd of strangers, while it’s another’s worst nightmare. Some people love rollercoasters, others–not so much. The list goes on and on.
If the situation is what creates our anxiety, then we’d be helpless and at the mercy of it. And while it certainly feels like we’re at its mercy when we’re embroiled in it, knowing that it’s always our thoughts that create our fearful feelings, means we have an out.
Just knowing this means that there’s an opportunity for any and all of us to be free from our fears.
Now I’m not saying that will happen overnight. In fact, it’s unlikely that you or I or anyone will ever be 100% anxiety-free. But knowing that our fears come from our own thoughts rather than the outside world, puts us back in the driver’s seat.
How cool is that? – Jill
Jill Whalen is the author of Victim of Thought: Seeing Through the Illusion of Anxiety.
Jill speaks to groups and organizations and personally mentors individuals, coaches, business owners and leaders to help them uncover their natural well-being and happiness so that they can operate from a clearer state of mind. This in turn has the ability to take their lives and businesses to a higher level. Stay abreast of Jill’s latest musings and offerings by subscribing to her newsletter here.