Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Anxiety and misusing the imagination.

This is the *extended Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, October 9th 2018.
Anxiety. A word that is increasingly appearing in the media. A fear of something, generally the unknown, allowing imaginations to run wild, creating emotional distress, sometimes leading to debilitating mental health conditions.

* Anxiety conditions and the misuse of the imagination have been around for centuries. 2000 years ago, Emperor Marcus Aurelius is quoted, "Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous, being but creatures of your fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thoughts sweep over the entire universe." In other words, stop imagining the worst and look at the bigger picture.

The first seminar I attended on Anxiety started with two scenarios about Presentation Anxiety. You have to make a presentation. You walk on the stage, trip over and drop your notes. On falling, you fracture your leg. Taken to hospital, you develop an infection and do not survive. Listening to this, we, the students, laughed. Then the lecturer gave another scenario. You walk on stage. You give a magnificent presentation. A television producer is in the audience and offers you a TV series. You become famous and very rich. We, the students, laughed louder. In fact, the lecturer suggested, neither of these scenarios would happen. The presentation was unlikely to be the best ever heard, but neither would it be the worst. The scenarios are the work of a misused imagination.

In my practice, I met people with a variety of anxiety conditions. ‘Born worriers’, always had a parent or main carer who were also ‘born worriers’. The behaviour was learnt and could be cognitively challenged and unlearnt.  Nurture, not nature. 

Some people feel anxious because they are unable to control a situation, especially one on a national or international scale. One solution is to find what part of the situation can be controlled. For instance, by writing a letter, joining an action group, signing a petition. Another solution is to confine a set time for doing nothing else, but worrying. Once a day or once a week. Realising the futility of wasting that time on something that cannot be changed, can work for some people.

*Some temporary states of anxiety can be helpful at times. It can heighten performance and sends some helpful hormones around the body. Too much though, will flood the mind and body, causing a shutdown. The example I learnt was that the spin cycle on a washing machine is needed in short bursts. It wouldn't work and would break down if it was on constant spin cycle. To have the brain on a constant spin cycle is damaging. Techniques can be learnt to help when levels of anxiety are felt to be rising to quickly and too high.

Recently I was driving to a meeting and had a serious puncture. I worried about the cost, the inconvenience and of letting people down. It all seemed unsolvable. Calming down, I put it into perspective. The unexpected cost was frustrating, but could be paid. Five years before, to the hour, my husband was having his life saved by the doctors in Scarborough Hospital. I used my phone to let people know what was happening. My absence could be covered. 

* This took a little time. At first, my emotional arousal prevented me from thinking logically, but I worked on it. Self administered Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT.)

“I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Mark Twain


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