I have an aversion to labels especially when it comes to mental health. Why? Because they can re-enforce limiting beliefs about ourselves and our ability to reach our true potential.
A bold statement you say? Aren’t labels helpful so we know what we’re dealing with? Well, not always…
As a society we’re getting better at talking about mental health, however I’ve also noticed the “anxiety” label is increasingly being used to describe everything from every day worries to complex mental health conditions.
There is a growing trend, particularly among celebrities, to wear their “insecurities” and “anxiety” as a badge of honor. It’s almost becoming fashionable to identify as an anxiety sufferer! In my opinion there’s a fine line between the benefits of someone in the public eye sharing genuine struggles with anxiety to help people feel normal or learn how to deal with it, and those using it to gain popularity among their followers.
So what do I mean about not “owning” your anxiety and why does it matter?
Did you always get told you were a nervous child? Introverted? Scared of talking to strangers? Not one for trying new things? Did you grow up believing you had anxiety? Or a nervous disposition?
The meaning we make from our childhood experiences shape our beliefs about ourselves as adults. So if we have a belief that we are of a nervous disposition, prone to anxiety and hate being in social situations as we get embarrassed and break out in hives then guess what, that’s what our mind and body produces for us!
Secondly, we are programmed to avoid loss. The mind doesn’t like to let go of anything it thinks it owns. So if you refer to it constantly as “my anxiety” do you really think your mind is going to want you to get rid of it? After all, your mind only does what it thinks you want it to do, so you’re just making the job harder by acting as if its part of your identity. The same applies to “my stress” and “my depression”.
When we label something, we’re pretty much decided that it’s a true representation of something, so we don’t question it.
I remember years ago being diagnosed with IBS. This is a catch-all term for terrible stomach pains, extreme bloating and other horrible symptoms. I now realise it’s also used to label something which has no obvious cause or explanation. I just called it “Dave”.
The leaflet told me I needed to take medication and change my diet. However, as soon as I tackled my mental wellbeing and handled the stress in my life, it went away. Just like that. Had I bought in to being an “IBS sufferer” I may never have addressed the real root cause – my mind.
So what can you do to combat this?
Mind your language!
Stop using the word “my” when you talk about anxiety, stress or depression.
By using the word “my” you are signaling to your brain that the thing you’re talking about belongs to you. It’s going to do its utmost to prevent loss of this precious part of your identity.
The feelings you experience when you have anxiety are REAL. But your feelings are driven by your thoughts so that’s where your power lies.
Instead you can reframe how you talk to yourself. A reframe changes your perspective and gives you more options.
Start with replacing “my” with “the”. By talking about “the anxiety” it’s separate from your identity.
You can go one step further and change the word “anxiety” into “anxious thoughts” you’ve now changed it from a noun to a verb. That means we’ve gone from a fixed identity to a fluid state which signals to your mind this is not permanent.
So “I’m having anxious thoughts right now” is far more helpful to you than talking about “my anxiety is kicking in”.
Ditch past labels
We learn early on in childhood through other people’s judgements and our own experiences, how we should think, feel and act. We are often wearing other people’s beliefs, but we think they are ours, so we don’t question them.
As young children if adults tell us we are a certain way, or that we don’t like certain things, we just believe it. Often our parents unwittingly project their own worries onto us. So if we have a highly anxious parent, we’re more likely to pick up those traits.
The next time you feel anxious, tune into your critical self-talk. What words are being used? Who’s words are they? Who’s voice is saying them? Are you really a “nervous wreck” or “over sensitive”? Or is that someone else’s view? Notice where you have a limiting belief.
Turn that around with this simple visualization exercise:
Imagine the belief as a big, heavy old coat. Take off the coat, pass it back to the person who gave you the belief. Thank them for sharing their belief with you but tell them it’s theirs and you don’t need it anymore. Choose a belief that’s more positive and adopt it as an affirmation. For example “I’m a confident adult who has amazing coping skills and I’ve got this”.
“So many people from your past know the version of you that doesn’t exist anymore”
Find the positive gain
This is my favorite concept and one most people struggle to get their heads around.
Every behaviour we do has a positive gain for us.
As in we created it to serve a purpose, usually in our childhood, which means we had poor decision making abilities and often come up with something that’s not very effective and pretty damaging when you get to adulthood.
So lets say as a child you learned that every time there was conflict in the house the only way to stop the shouting and feel safe was to hide under the table with your hands over your ears. Now that was very effective when you were 4 or 6, but now you’re 46 and dealing with conflict at work you have to go and hide in the stationery cupboard to avoid having a panic attack that’s not a useful behaviour. Yes it does the job, but you definitely have more resources as an adult to choose another option.
When you are doing “your anxiety” behaviour start to notice what it’s doing for you. Is there a positive gain? What is it allowing you to escape from? How is it protecting you? How is it making you feel safe?
Now you have more awareness you can challenge your thoughts. How else could you achieve the same outcome without having to do the same anxiety pattern?
Give these strategies a try next time you find “the” anxiety trying to take over!