What is anxiety? This is a question that clients often get bogged down trying to answer. Yet in its simplest form, anxiety is nothing more than worrying about something which hasn’t happened yet. The next time you feel anxious, check-in with yourself and ask yourself where your worry is focused. I will almost guarantee that the anxiety will be centred on a situation which has not yet taken place. It will be that up and coming wedding, that work night out, or how you will pay the rent at the end of the month… All of which will be future orientated.
Okay, why does the future perpetuate anxiety? This is a relatively easy question to answer and can be simply demonstrated with the following:
John is a 19-year-old teenager. Over the last 3 years he has found himself in five relationships, all of which have ended with his girlfriends leaving him. Recently John met a new girl called Joanne and he feels that she could be the one. Despite feeling connected to Joanne and enjoying her company, John constantly worries that Joanne is going to leave him. Despite the fact that there is no evidence to support his irrational thinking, John constantly seeks reassurance and sits anxiously at work thinking that Joanne will just cut ties and leave. It’s this constant worry (Anxiety) about Joanne leaving in the future which disturbs him.
John’s anxiety is not a real threat, as Joanne loves him and wants to be with him. Yet John’s thoughts carry him into predicting and fortune telling in ways which convince him that Joanne will leave, and this causes him a great deal of discomfort. This in-turn generates behaviours which could be observed as being “needy” to others. If John was able to forego his future thinking about the relationship failing, he would enjoy his relationship more and would be able to relax and alleviate his anxiety. (Easier said than done I here you say)
Clearly John has some relationship issues which centre around abandonment, trust and isolation. It would be fair to say that John’s problems started in his childhood and would be impacted by his early childhood attachment style. Whilst John’s issues would require some therapeutic attention, the cause of the anxiety can be reduced if he increased his awareness about his behaviours; was able to engage with his thoughts and learnt to focus on the evidence within his new relationship.
The anxiety which John is experiencing is generated because of his minds ability to remember, recall and reapply. All of the previous relationships which John has experienced throughout his lifetime have been assessed, stamped with memorable data and stored to enable John to predict future outcomes. When we were cavemen and we encounter something new, we were able to take the new knowledge and forward apply it so that we didn’t need to spend valuable time trying to figure things out when threatened. For example:
Dave the caveman comes out the cave one morning and he sees this beautifully soft haired creature laying sleeping on the ground. His initial response is consumed by the beauty of the creature, and as he approaches it to touch its soft fur, the creature awakens and attacks Dave. Luckily, he was able to fend off the creature and survived the ordeal, but his body took note of the situation, recorded the events and will now protect Dave the next time he sees the same type of creature by flooding Dave’s thoughts with images of danger. Needless to say, Dave will always see the Creature as a threat going forward and Dave’s body will induce anxiety as a threat response to ensure that Dave is never endangered by one of the creatures again.
As John feels threatened by the loss of his girlfriend, he is holding himself in a constant state of fear. By using the memorable data from past relationships and applying it to his present relationship, John runs the risking of ruining his current relationship through his neediness, jealousy and constant want for reassurance. Therapy would help guide John through the process of reducing his anxiety and revaluating the memorable data stored about his past relationships. This will allow him to relax and enjoy the present instead of worrying about the future.