I, like many other people, struggle daily with anxiety. Sometimes this anxiety is rooted in a specific event that has occurred, from something minor like a conversation with someone that has left me feeling anxious about having said something that perhaps I wish I hadn’t, to something bigger like the presence of a physical symptom that points at a potentially serious health problem.

Not everyone is susceptible to anxiety attacks, but for some people they happen even when there is nothing specific to be anxious about, and this can then lead to destructive behavioural patterns. For people with conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), anxiety attacks can come at any time of the day despite there being nothing to be anxious about and can make the rest of the day near impossible to cope with due to both intrusive thoughts and behavioural reactions we struggle to control. 

Having an anxiety disorder can leave you feeling an overwhelming sense of doom as though something terrifying is on the cusp of happening, and if you let it get the better of you, you can spiral into a state of panic while you analyse every aspect of your life searching for that thing that is making you anxious, despite it not even existing, which can then lead you to behave in certain destructive ways. For many people, even hypothetical possible events, past and present, that never happened and may never happen, trigger crippling levels of anxiety that inhibit them from getting on with every day life in a calm and focused way. More importantly, they interfere with our ability to be happy.

After years of struggling with anxiety, I came across an effective tool to overcome what are known as intrusive thoughts, thereby diminishing anxiety and learning to control my behavioural response. Intrusive thoughts are those negative and catastrophic thoughts that enter our minds in the midst of an anxiety attack and feed us scary beliefs that, if left unguarded, get stronger and stronger until they become truths in our minds that we feel compelled to act on. For example, someone with social anxiety may walk away from a conversation feeling as though they may have said something offensive despite not having done so. Intrusive thoughts are those thoughts that creep in and tell you that you did absolutely say something offensive, even if you don’t know what it was. They pick at you and make you analyse the responses in the people you were with, making you think you saw things in their reactions to you that reaffirm this anxiety. When allowed to continue, intrusive thoughts have the capacity to fully override any rational facts you know to be true to the point where the irrational intrusive thoughts become truth and you react in ways that are either unnecessary or harmful. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches you how to slow down, stop, take stock of the situation and realise that actually you are having an anxiety attack over something that is not real, and helps you to push the anxiety away and get on with your day without reacting by overriding irrational intrusive thoughts with rational truths. And here is how I do it:

[Please note I am not a Medical Professional and this is my take on CBT and how it worked for me. If you feel you need therapy of this kind for any issue, please seek expert medical advice]

When you are having an anxiety attack, sit down and close your eyes. Take deep breaths and ask yourself about what facts, as opposed to beliefs, you know to be true about the situation making you anxious. In the case of social anxiety, for example, focus on the conversation you had and what you know you did say, as opposed to what you are worried you might have said. Replay what you remember actually saying and ask yourself whether anything you said would offend you in the reverse scenario, and often you will find that the answer is categorically no. Replay the reactions from the other person that you know happened, as opposed to ones you may be inventing to feed your anxiety. The trick is to reinforce rational truths by focusing on them and strengthening them to the point where they override the negative and irrational intrusive thoughts before you act on them. Focus on what you know to be true rather than what you believe may be true. This takes practice, and it is important, time allowing, to keep doing this until you feel calmer and realise there is no basis for the intrusive thoughts at all and no action to be taken.

For people who have GAD, CBT is extremely effective. People with GAD spiral down into a state of catastrophic doom and come to believe that something absolutely terrifying and life altering has or is about to happen, despite not knowing what that thing is. Their fight or flight mechanism goes into total overdrive and they feel a compulsion to act right now and do something about it, but don’t know what. When you are having an anxiety attack, stop and sit down and, breath, tell yourself truths about your life. For example: you are alive and breathing and healthy, your loved ones are OK, nothing bad is happening to you or anybody you know. A good tool is to tell yourself that your brain has developed a default high anxiety setting and all it is doing is trying to find something to worry about, because this is its normal comfort zone now. Not knowing what there is to be worried about shows that there is nothing to be worried about because if there was it would be immediately apparent. It is possible to reverse this default setting over time using CBT so that your brain becomes used to a less anxious state and also used to not immediately behaving in a certain way as a result. Keep telling yourself over and over again all the rational facts that you know to be true and strengthen them, and keep doing this slowly while breathing calmly until the anxiety attack subsides. Awareness of anxiety attacks as a chemical reaction inside the brain as opposed to something external, and removing yourself from it instead of getting lost in it, can help you to see it for what it is and take a step back and more effectively see the rational truths about your life and behave accordingly. 

Sometimes it may be the case that you actually did inadvertently offend someone. In cases like this, CBT works by asking yourself what the worst case scenario really actually is. It is not the end of the world, it is does not mean your reputation is forever tarnished, and it may not even mean the end of that relationship. Using CBT, tells yourself truths: even for those people with the best intentions, offending someone will happen because it is almost impossible to walk through life without offending someone given the vast scope of belief systems and sensitivities. Focus on the best course of action (in this case an apology and an explanation) and then apply what is probably the hardest but most effective tool of all: let it go.

Letting go of what you cannot control is extremely difficult at first but essential for all anxiety disorders and anxious states of mind. It is precisely the lack of control over a situation and its outcomes that induces anxiety and conditions like OCD and GAD and triggers destructive behavioural patterns. But learning to accept that events from that past, whether real or imagined, and events in the future, whether potential or hypothetical, are simply out of your control and, more to the point, that this is OK, is a direct route to happiness and a calm existence in which you can control, at least, your behaviour. It is OK to not be able to to control absolutely everything about your environment, nobody can control everything, and letting go of those things you cannot control is extremely liberating. It is the ability to shrug, not react, and carry on when you have an intrusive thought about something you have no control over that is the ultimate goal here. Did I offend someone? Rational thought shows that the facts suggest probably not. So I will shrug, not react, and get on with what I am doing now and not think about it any longer. So the final part of CBT, once you have calmed yourself down about a given scenario by overriding negative intrusive thoughts (beliefs) with rational truths, is letting go and focusing on the NOW, because this ability is the holy grail of happiness.