Friday, 23 August 2013

Anxiety Diaries | False alarm

Anxiety is normal. Anxiety is absolutely, completely, totally normal. If our bodies didn't have an anxiety alert system in place we would have been rendered extinct a long time ago. Perish the thought! 

There are many scientific explanations behind the physical symptoms of anxiety and behind the benefits of such symptoms. We sweat when anxious in order to easily slip out of the claws of predators; we develop a sense of 'tunnel vision' so we can lock our focus on the danger we're facing; our stomach flips and we feel nauseous because our brain is busy pumping blood to our limbs in order for us to make a quick getaway should we need to. 

The problem with having such an intricate and highly developed fight or flight system is that we can be prone to false alarms. Sometimes something sets our body off, whether we realise what it is or not, and we automatically assume there must be something wrong. If my body is telling me there's danger, my mind instinctively understands that I need to find that danger and find it fast! We often unconsciously assume that if our body feels anxious, our mind needs to hurry up and match it. That there must be a reason for our anxiety. Yet this isn't always the case. 

Likewise, sometimes we may have an anxious thought that causes us physical anxiety and anxious feelings such as being upset or scared. But when we take a moment to analyse the anxious thought, we find that it doesn't have any basis in truth. Again, a false alarm, this time stemming from an inaccurate thought. The first thing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy teaches is that thoughts are not facts. Just because we assume something to be true doesn't mean it is. That's a pretty powerful realisation. 

How can we determine a false alarm and calm ourselves down? The key lies in one small question:


A common model used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the Anxiety Cycle, which illustrates how thoughts, physical sensations, feelings and behaviours are intrinsically linked. This means that should we think an anxious thought, feel a physical symptom of anxiety, experience an anxious emotion or behave in an anxious way, these four things in turn influence and interact with each other, often unconsciously, leading to a certain outcome.

The great news is that because the stages interact, you can work on breaking the cycle at any point and it will break the other stages! This has been scientifically proven; it actually does work. I've been making a conscious effort to become more aware of anxiety in my everyday life, and I've been asking 'why' as often as possible. 'Why' really is the key. 

It helps to keep a written thought diary in order to start tuning into your anxiety, before re-framing false alarms in order to achieve a sense of calm. The following is a step by step example of an anxiety cycle taken from my anxiety diary. The situation was when I was out with friends for dinner. I filled in the cycle the next day, when I was feeling calmer. 

The thought I was having was that my friends must think I'm weak and unintelligent. This thought was accompanied by physical symptoms of anxiety such as an increased heart rate and uncomfortable palpitations, a sudden headache, blurred vision and nausea. Alongside this were the feelings I was having; the more I focused on the thoughts I was having, the more intense my physical symptoms became and the more upset, disconnected and stupid I felt. The behaviours connected to these thoughts, physical symptoms and feelings included a reluctance to speak and body language that suggested withdrawal, such as slumped shoulders, an agitated expression and difficulty maintaining eye contact. The eventual outcome could be deciding to avoid future social events, in order to avoid such an uncomfortable cycle from occurring again. 

As you can see, each stage is connected and all of the stages fuel each other. For this example I'm going to illustrate breaking the 'thought' element of the cycle, and show how doing so then breaks the whole cycle. Sounds too easy, right? With practice, it really does work.  

In the heat of the moment it can be hard to question your thoughts, and so this was something I did after the event when I was feeling calmer. The first thing I did was ask myself, and note down my answers to, the key question: why? Why was I having this thought and is it based in truth? Simply challenging your thought like this helps give a sense of objectivity and distance. OK, so I'm having an anxious thought... but I'm going to try to break it down a little. I was feeling self conscious because I had recently deferred my final year of study and this meant not graduating for another year; and I was frustrated with myself because I hated the idea of anyone seeing me as weak for doing so, or weak for having panic attacks. This helped answer the 'why' behind the thought I had over dinner.

 I then explored whether my thought, that of 'my friends think I'm unintelligent and weak' might really be based in truth. I suggested to myself that my friends might love me for who I am, and reminded myself that I wouldn't think these things about them so why would they think it about me? Besides, no-one had actually told me they felt this way about me. My friends have always supported me in the past and they know I'm intelligent as I've always been academic and they know I'm simply taking a break from my studies. They have always been supportive and sympathetic when we've spoken about my panic attacks. Evidence suggested that my friends didn't really think this way about me after all. 

The next step was to swap the negative thought for a positive alternative. I went with 'my friends think I'm intelligent and strong, and they love me for who I am'. I then plotted a new diagram in my diary, using the frame shown above. I started with the new positive thought and then imagined what physical sensations I would have, what feelings I'd have, and what behaviours I'd exhibit if I really believed this new thought (it often involves acting, if you still feel anxious!) Finally, what would the eventual outcome be?

The more I focus on the positive alternative thought of 'my friends think I'm intelligent and strong, and they love me for who I am' the more the physical symptoms, feelings and behaviours align with this thought. The stages are connected and feed into one another, and if you take some time to focus on a positive thought, grounded in evidence, and then imagine how you would feel physically, what your feelings and behaviours would be, and what the outcome would be, the more your body and mind start to settle and calm down. 

By questioning your thoughts in this way you're actually giving your body and mind space to breathe. You're giving yourself some much needed distance, simply by considering an alternative. You might not believe the alternative straight away, but that doesn't matter! Even when you're simply pretending, the more you focus on the positive thought and on filling in the diagram, the more your body and mind will respond and start to believe your new thought. 

Asking 'why' and taking a moment to challenge an anxious thought really has helped me to get a grip on my anxiety at times, and it feels incredibly empowering. My CBT therapist explained that using this type of model to challenge potential 'false alarms' is something you can adopt as a long term strategy; you're building an anxiety fighting muscle and while it isn't a quick fix and it requires dedication and perseverance it can and does work. After a while you can move away from noting things down on paper and develop an instant awareness of thoughts, challenging them quickly in the moment. I'm looking forward to getting to that stage. 

I love how empowered it makes me feel when I take the time to sit down and get to grips with what I've been thinking. I'm starting to believe that I can gain some control over anxiety, and it's not something someone else can do for me. I have a tool box and I'm starting to utilise my tools!

I'm becoming better at recognising 'dodgy' thoughts; with the help of my trusty anxiety diary and the Anxiety Cycle model I'm much more often able to say, with confidence:

'Keep calm, it's a false alarm'

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  1. Your blog is lovely!!!! Would you like to follow each other on bloglovin' ? xxx

    Gleaming Spire * Bloglovin'

    1. Thank you so much! I'll be sure to head over and check out your blog!xx

  2. Love your blog and this is such an inspiring post! I have discovered so many bloggers like me who suffer from anxiety, but its so good that everyone pulls together to understand it! Great post and great blog! :) mine is, please check it out! :) xxxxx

    1. Thanks so much Sophie, I'm really glad you enjoyed reading! I agree, so many bloggers out there are fighting anxiety and it's wonderful when the community pulls together to support each other. I've 'met' some truly amazing bloggers who have really helped me on my journey! I'll be sure to pop on over and check out your blog :) xx

  3. This is really, REALLY brilliant Imogen. Xx

    1. Thank you Becci! Reading your comment has made me feel really happy, I hope the post helps others fighting anxiety and offers some support for what can be a very lonely journey at times xx

  4. I struggle a lot with the negative thought cycle, so this is soo helpful to me! My anxiety has gotten so much worse since I've gone back to school, and your anxiety diaries posts have been really motivating!! I read your blog so often I don't even know how I didn't noticed that I hadn't been following it. I need to change that right now!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words Aaliyah! I'm so glad to hear that you're finding the Anxiety Diaries posts helpful, that makes writing them feel so worthwhile. It's great that you've recognised your anxiety has gotten worse now that you're back at school, as being aware of it and of potential triggers is such an important and positive step in getting to grips with anxiety. I'd love to hear how you get along using the positive thought cycle if you decide to give it a go! Wishing you good luck on your anxiety journey, you're never alone and you have lots of support here :) xx

  5. Hey Imogen! This is a really great post and is so relevant for people with anxiety. In the summer I struggled with really bad exam anxiety and my negative thought cycle meant that it was really difficult for me to cope with the pressure I put on myself in an exam situation. CBT has helped me so much to be in control of the way that I think and cope with stress, and I'm really glad it's helping you :) I love your blog, keep up the great work! xx


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