Anxiety is the most common mental illness.Ali Mattu, psychologist
Thirty percent of humans or so are destined to be seriously impaired with anxiety.Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist
With so many people suffering from excessive amounts of anxiety, what are we to do about it?
Anxiety — to have it or not to have it?
Robert Sapolsky says, “We survive with the right amount of anxiety. The plan is not to get rid of it. The plan is to have the biologically rational, real bases of it turning our systems on.”
In other words, we don’t want to eliminate anxiety altogether — it serves a useful purpose to help us to stay alive and be alert to danger. Imagine if you felt no anxiety at all; you might do silly (and dangerous) activities such as walking along the top edge of a tall building on a windy day, confronting a wild animal, or crossing a busy street without bothering to look for traffic.
What Sapolsky means is is that instead of letting your base instinct turn on anxiety for everyday situations as though you were being attacked by a sabre tooth tiger, and allowing anxiety to overwhelm you, it is better to choose the right things to be anxious about, and at the right level.
To put it another way, wouldn’t it be great if you could choose to turn down or turn off your anxiety (or, better, not turn it on in the first place) whenever anxiety serves you badly or is inappropriate?
When you go to a doctor, the first port of call is often to reach for the pills. Pills certainly have a place in treating anxiety, and indeed without them, many people would have nowhere to go.
But, I like to think of it in a different way. Instead of having overwhelming anxiety and then treating it, wouldn’t it be better to just turn it off so that you don’t need treatment in the first place?
This might sound like an idealistic and impossible utopia. Up to a point, you would be right; life presents us with stressful situations, and those situations, especially unexpected ones, can cause anxiety no matter how prepared we are.
But that doesn’t mean that we are helpless in the face of life. It doesn’t mean that we have to surrender and succumb to extreme anxiety.
The causes of anxiety
Anxiety comes from several causes, sometimes from external events (flooding; abuse; and more), sometimes from inside (self-criticism; judging; catastrophising; and more).
Think of this:
In modern society, most, if not all, of our anxiety tends to come from within. We criticise ourselves, and feel anxious about it. We judge others, and feel anxious about it. An external event stresses us, we catastrophise the event in our mind, and… yes, feel anxious about it.
Every one of these stresses adds up to create an overwhelming anxiety!
Can you really turn off anxiety?
Yes. You can see the proof in (for example) people who practice certain forms of meditation and mindfulness. Some of these people have learned to turn off almost all anxiety. They can even turn off physical pain.
Take an extreme example: In 1963, a Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, set himself on fire as a political protest. Despite being completely aflame, he simply sat there, showing no emotion, not calling out, unmoving until his dead and charred body toppled over.
Of course, I don’t expect you to learn such skills to such extreme; it takes a lifetime of dedication. But you can learn skills — really simple skills — that let you take control of your emotions, and turn the anxiety right down from where it is now.
Yes, it takes practice to succeed, but it doesn’t take long to learn and understand.
Learning to turn down anxiety
That is exactly what I do with anxiety hypnotherapy in Oxfordshire. You don’t just get therapy (although that is an important part of the process). You also learn these skills, and how to use them in your everyday life.
I used to be quite a panicky person as a youngster. My friends often used to tell me to calm down. But I didn’t have the skills back then; I struggled with my panic. Now, it’s different. Even during an emergency (which fortunately is rare), I remain calm, rational, efficient, and completely in control. I’ve had friends call me the most unflappable person that they’ve met. This didn’t come from some magical epiphany, but instead from simple training on how to reduce my anxiety.
I want you to have these same skills! I want you to be able to say, at any time, “No, I’m not going to respond to this with anxiety. I’m going to choose how I feel about this situation, and choose how to respond.” I want you to have choice.
Once you have these skills under your belt, it means that you have less need to rely on other forms of anxiety treatment. It gives you greater choice and freedom in deciding how you will proceed.
Unless your anxiety really is 100% biological in origin (extremely rare), there’s almost always something that you can do to reduce your anxiety by yourself.
What if anxiety comes from external events that I don’t control?
This is a good question. What if you feel anxious because of external events? Can you just turn off anxiety?
Well, you certainly can learn to turn it down. Although, in such cases, it’s not enough to learn the right skills to cope with anxiety-producing situations. It’s vital to look at your environment and, to the extent that you can, change it. Find help wherever you can to get out of that situation.
For an event that you can’t control and can’t get out of, yes, reducing your anxiety will help you to think clearly, be proactive, and do whatever is best for you under the circumstances. Turning off your anxiety completely might be an option, or it might not, but it’s always worth knowing how to turn it down.