There are many lists of things that make you anxious on the internet, and I do not want to add to them by just compiling a big list, as I am not sure that is helpful.
Rather I want to look at whether the things on the list (or on your own list) do, in fact, cause anxiety.
I shall start with a list of typical things that make you anxious and also things that you avoid because of your anxiety before moving on to see if they do, in fact, cause anxiety.
Things that make you anxious
- My job
- My boss
- My partner, kids, family
- Money, bills, the mortgage
- Open spaces, small spaces
- Planes, trains, cars, buses
- Spiders, creepy crawlies
- waiting for a message; text or email etc
You could well experience anxiety about any of the things on the list, but that does not necessarily mean that they have caused your anxiety. I shall explain this in a minute, but first, I want to list some things you might avoid because you believe they make you anxious.
Things that you avoid because they make you anxious
- Talking about anxiety, in case you get an attack
- your family
- taking on extra responsibility
Do these things really make you anxious?
Before we can really decide if they make you anxious or not, defining what being anxious is is useful. If you do a quick Google, you’ll develop things like an impending sense of doom and dread.
In all the years that I have worked as a psychologist, I don’t often hear people use that phrase when they are trying to tell me what their anxiety really feels like. I know I certainly didn’t; yes, I had anxiety, that is why I specialise in it; I had panic attacks, to be precise.
Anxiety for most people can be a set of physical symptoms in your body, tightening in your chest, blushing, or never being able to switch your mind off. To explain anxiety properly, you need to understand the difference between fear and anxiety.
A quick explanation is; fear is what you feel when there is something in your immediate environment that can cause you harm, and anxiety is what you feel when there is no danger present.
With anxiety, you get anxious because you are anticipating something that could happen in the future. This is known as anticipatory anxiety or your brain has learned to give you an anxious response. You can read more on anxiety here.
To explain this a bit better, let’s take a look at some things that can cause fear.
Things that cause fear
Fear is a primitive response and an adaptive one and is meant to be used in short bursts; let me explain. Think of a wild animal that is under attack from a predator. I’m going to explain this loosely. They experience fear, and their nervous system responds by giving them the energy and stamina they need to (hopefully) get out of harm’s way.
Once the danger is over, they return to normal. It is a quick response that is designed to return to normal as quickly as possibly.
If you are standing on a wobbly chair to change a lightbulb and you almost topple over, you can think of this as fear. That quickening of your heart rate is your body changing and adapting to what is happening. The important point, though is, you return to normal quickly.
With anxiety, you get the same response, but your threat is, for example, worrying about your mortgage or what your boss thinks of you. Your brain finds it hard to return to normal, as you keep the response going by continually thinking and worrying about it. That is a straightforward explanation, but I think you get the idea.
So why does this happen?
The simple explanation is that your brain has mistakenly identified something as a ‘threat.’ So you are getting the correct response if something is a threat, but the ‘threat’ has been identified incorrectly in your brain.
To help me to explain this to you, I need to look at what really causes your anxiety.
What really makes you anxious?
It’s not any of the things above on the list, which is a good thing, as if your anxiety really was caused by the above list, there would be nothing you could do about it. That is not to say that you do not get anxious when interacting or even thinking about things on the list above, but they are not a clear cut cause.
When I say ’cause’, I am talking about causality, or cause and effect; that one thing is responsible for an effect on the other. Or in terms of the list, that would mean something on the list such as ‘your boss’ could cause an effect in you, i.e. anxiety.
If your boss really did cause anxiety in you, there would be very little I or anyone else could do to help you. I prefer to think of it this way. Even if you get anxious thinking about your boss or being around your boss (or anything else that you believe causes your anxiety), the anxiety you feel is down to;
- past experiences of your boss and other bosses
- how you see yourself about your boss
- how you view your boss
- previous learning stored in your brain relating to your boss
These are things I can help you with. These things you can change.
For example, I’ll keep the boss scenario going to explain what I mean, but you change ‘boss’ to whatever your think causes your anxiety.
Let’s say you had a ‘run in’ with your boss, and during the course of this interaction, you felt nervous, your heart was beating fast, you were too warm, and you felt yourself blushing. Once your boss leaves the room, you can calm down a little, but when s/he comes back into the room later in the day, you feel your heart beating fast again.
When you get home, you start to think about what happened. The problem is, your thoughts are not neutral, they can make you feel something in your body, so you could well notice that you are feeling a little nervous or maybe angry or feeling like a failure.
Your brain keeps track of this; it pays close attention to things that might cause your harm and might start to match up ‘your boss’ as being one of those things that might cause you harm. Your boss can start to become a ‘threat.’ You wake up the next morning and feel a little nervous about going into work; this is where you could be anticipating something bad. The result is feeling nervous. When you see your boss, your brain gives you all the physical sensations about what might be a ‘threat.’ You feel anxiety.
The answer to what really causes your anxiety is not any of the things on the list. Your anxiety is caused by
- previous learning and past experiences
- worrying about things that could happen in the future in terms of anticipatory anxiety
- your amygdala
Previous learning and past experiences
Your past experiences of your boss could be feeling nervous and blushing, feeling inadequate or not good enough at your job. The more times you have similar experiences, the more your brain learns.
Worrying about things that could happen in the future
- Dreading going into work
- Worrying about meeting your boss
I haven’t mentioned the word ‘amygdala’ yet, and I shall explain it briefly to you now. When you are worried about something and possibly create anticipatory anxiety, your anxiety comes from a thinking part of your brain that involves all your thought processes and how you interpret things. Specifically, it is the cerebral cortex. Anxiety can arise from another avenue, where you do not need thought processes at all.
The amygdala, amongst other things, is responsible for fear. The amygdala attaches the emotional experience you have to a situation, for example, back to the boss example. If you keep feeling anxiety around your boss, your amygdala attaches this anxiety (this emotion) to your experiences of your boss. All of this happens outside of your conscious awareness. You don’t need thought processes to activate; it will activate with no effort on your part when you see your boss.
This is what I mean when I talk about past experiences and learning. Let me give another example to labour the point. Imagine you have just been introduced to me, and I punch you in the face. Your brain matches up the emotional memory of the pain, anger, surprise and fear that you experience from the punch with the image of me. If I do this again the next time you meet me, that memory gets strengthened.
If you hear my voice or bump into me in the street, you have no choice; you will experience anxiety, as your brain has taken a more direct route to anxiety, through the amygdala to get you ready for danger, i.e. crazy lady who punches you. It won’t matter if I am polite to you, you will still experience some anxiety in your body, and your brain has remembered to be anxious.
In other words, your anxiety is caused by how you currently respond to things on the list and how you have responded in the past and can arise from the thoughts that you have, but it can also take a more direct route through your amygdala.
You can read more on your amygdala here.
How to change your relationship to things that cause your anxiety.
Traditionally CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was used to help you with anxiety, and this is great for anticipatory anxiety, where your thought processes are used. However, if you think you have more fear-based anxiety and experience anxiety in the absence of clear-cut thought processes, you also need to understand your brain.