Anxiety attacks and panic attacks; chronic worrying and obsessive thoughts; compulsive behaviours; irrational fears and phobias, even severe depression - these problems all involve heightened anxiety.
In overcoming them, the goal is not to get rid of anxiety, for to have anxiety is normal, it is a part of being human, helps ready us for action and is there for our survival.
The aim is to understand why it has become so strong, change what it means to us and know how to reduce it and prevent it spiralling out of control.
It is possible to experience anxiety without it leading to panic, obsessions, compulsions or despair - to experience it and yet still be calm. In fact many people do experience anxiety like this frequently (job interviews / dating / performance situations - sports, social). They feel shaky on the inside but relatively calm on the outside, this is normal, this is part of anxiety, this is how it feels.
-- On a popular TV quiz show, where the contestants answer questions and can double their winnings up to a million, the quizmaster has said to many contestants, words to the effect - 'you look remarkably calm'. In nearly every instance, the reply has been the same - 'on the outside yes, but inside I'm shaking like a leaf '. --
To overcome anxiety disorders we have to change our beliefs.
If ten thousand people say you are good and you feel bad about yourself ... you will believe you are bad. Conversely if ten thousand people say you are bad and you feel good about yourself ... you will believe that you are good. Our reality is shaped by what we feel and believe:
-- A man found an eagle's egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled and would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air. Years passed and the eagle grew very old.
One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings. The eagle looked up in awe. "Who's that?" he asked.
"That's the eagle, the king of the birds," said his neighbour. "He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth - we're chickens." So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that's what he thought he was. (AWARENESS ... Anthony de Mello) --
To change beliefs, we have to understand how and why they developed. We have to understand our experiences, the people involved and more importantly, the conclusions we drew about our role in them, for it's not the experiences themselves that do the lasting damage, it's what we make of them. We have to understand how we learnt to think and behave because of our experiences.
Changing beliefs through insight and understanding is essential to overcoming anxiety problems. However, from shyness to depression, something else is equally important ... changing behaviour. We can't just think our way out of these problems - to change behaviour we have to do the behaviour (it isn't possible to learn to ride a bike just by thinking about it!)
Of course, changing behaviour alone will not help if we still feel bad about ourselves or still have unanswered questions about the problem. Any force over which we have little understanding and even less control will always hold power over us, for it is unpredictable and could harm us and as such remains frightening.
Therefore:- Successfully overcoming anxiety disorders requires BOTH insight and behaviour change.
We need to:-
- Understand the problem (how it developed and it's effects) to such an extent that the search for reasons and answers can be given up
- Reduce the automatic negative thoughts, images and behaviours
- Develop more positive beliefs and behaviours
COURAGE is not the absence of fear. It is feeling afraid but keeping those feelings sufficiently under control to be able to act appropriately.
Once we begin to understand how anxiety disorders work - much of the fear of them is removed. And when we couple insight and new beliefs to techniques that help reduce anxious thoughts and behaviours and develop new more positive ones ... it is possible to truly overcome anxiety disorders.
By Terry Dixon B.Sc.
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