Three things we think cause anxiety that actually don’t

(This post is a follow-up from one I wrote last week: A Life Free of Anxiety?)

I get emails from people every single day sharing with me their stories of anxiety and inevitably they tell me what’s behind it.

“It’s been ever since my Mum died.”

“It happened on a motorway the first time and now I can’t go on them anymore.”

“It’s because I had a very stressful childhood and moved home a lot.”

“I was diagnosed with PTSD after an event that happened a while back and I’ve been anxious ever since.”

“I was fine until I found out my husband was having an affair and then we divorced.”

“It got worse because I had children and suddenly I had to cope all the time and I just couldn’t.”

“I got diagnosed with cancer and then obviously I got really anxious about all my symptoms.”

And a thousand variations on these themes.

They are stories that touch my heart as I can totally resonate with the suffering these people are experiencing.

I know how it feels.

But I wanted to write this to clear up a simple misunderstanding about how it all really works.

It’s really simple, but when you get it, it changes everything.

The way most people think about life, there is an assumption that there are people, there are places and there are circumstances that can cause us to feel a certain way.

Let me give you an example.

(I’m going to really break this down but bear with me for going slowly because this is important.)

Firstly people:

“If I have an argument with my husband and he shouts at me, that can make me feel anxious.”

“If I have a boss who is horrible and says things to put me down, that makes me feel really anxious.”

“If my daughter misbehaves or goes out and indulges in reckless behaviour, that makes me feel anxious. ”

We think that there are people and the things that they do create these feelings in us.

When we have feelings, that can tend to result in particular behaviour.

If I think that my boss and my work colleagues create anxiety for me, I’m not going to hang around the office for long.

I’m not going to want to go to work because going to work gives me anxiety.

Makes sense right? Completely, given your understanding of how life works.

I’ll come back to this.

Secondly, places:

We think there are places that can trigger our anxiety.

Really common ones I hear a lot are supermarkets, aeroplanes and motorways.

(I thought I was the only one who did the motorway thing but, no, there are plenty of you out there.)

Cinemas or concert halls or anywhere where there’s a lot of people but you’re in an enclosed space – that feels completely un-doable for many with anxiety.

How we come up with our explanation for why we have anxiety looks something like this:

Once we were in a supermarket and suddenly we felt those sweating palms and racing heart and shortness of breath and it happened seemingly out of the blue.

As human beings we look around outside of ourselves for a cause whenever we feel off balance.

Whenever we feel any kind of negative emotion, our tendency is to look and see what caused that:  “Oh my God, what was that? What caused that?”

We draw a conclusion.

We decide it was because were were in a supermarket.

From then on,  if it looks to us like supermarkets are scary, then we’re going to do our shopping online because we don’t want to risk having another one of those panic attacks.

(For me, it was a train initially. I didn’t like being in a train because it would always stop in the station outside Waterloo for ages and I couldn’t get out if I wanted to. Then my mind would start going: What if there’s a terrorist attack? What if the train doors don’t open? What if if just gets hotter and hotter in here? What if I faint? All of those what if, what if, what if…. )

We associate those feelings with a place and then we avoid that place because we don’t want to be near it – or we can go to that place, but only if we fulfil certain (arbitrary but completely real-looking) rules.

“I can go in a car but only if I drive less than 26 minutes from my house.”

“I can go to the cinema, but only if my husband is sitting next to me.”

“I can go to the Co-op but not to Asda.”

I’ll come back to this one too.

The third thing we believe causes us anxiety are our circumstances.

These might be life events or the circumstances that we live in.

We think it’s because we got made redundant or because we were sick and we got a diagnosis like cancer or heart disease or any one of a myriad of diseases.

It might be that we have a sick child or that we’ve recently been through a divorce or a bereavement.

We think that that causes our anxious feelings and behaviour.

Here’s the reasoning behind that one.

“I was fine and I had an ordinary life until I got that diagnosis and then I had anxiety. It must be the diagnosis causing the anxiety. Anyone would feel anxious with that diagnosis. I see people all around me. They get that diagnosis and they’re anxious. Of course it’s causing my anxiety.”

So there we have it – the three things people think cause anxiety: people, places and circumstances.

What I would like you to consider is that none of those are true. 

People, places, circumstances can never make us feel anything.

The human system simply doesn’t work that way.

Things outside of us can’t make us feel any way at all.

They can do a really good job of creating an illusion that they do, but it doesn’t work that way.

Why would we think it does work that way?

Like I said, when we experience something that feels terrible, we look outside of ourselves to look for the explanation so that we can avoid it again.

Common sense given our understanding.

But it’s a misunderstanding.

When we grow up, the society that we live in, the world that we live in, the understanding we have about how human beings work up until this point has been that things outside create our experience inside, that it works outside-in.

What I want to suggest to you is an alternative way of looking at things.

If it’s true that our people, places, and circumstances can create our feelings than we would be really well advised to try and manage all of those things and manage our lives so we don’t come into contact with any of them and try to manage the behaviour of the people around us.

Any micromanagers here? 🙂

You’re trying to manage your husband, your wife, your kids to make sure that you can be okay.

You plan your life so you can avoid that particular road.

You set up an environment so you never have to go near a hospital.

If things outside us cause us to feel a certain way, like I said, our job then becomes trying to control the outside world so that we don’t have a panic attack, so that we don’t feel anxious, so that we can just get through the day.

That is exhausting and it’s all consuming.

The reason you’re so tired is because it’s impossible to manage people, places and circumstances so that you can be OK.

It’s impossible.

Because the answer lies in the opposite direction.

And it was understanding this that meant me, and the people I’ve worked with to share this with, are now completely free to go anywhere, be with anyone and have any of life events happen to us and be OK through it all.

I’ll write more on this in a couple of days but if this has stirred something up in you, or you recognise yourself in any of the examples above – the audio below is a great place to start looking in the completely direction I want to point you in.