by Windy Dryden, Ph.D., Dept. of Psychology, Goldsmiths College
I have worked as a counseling psychologist for over ten years. One of the most common problems that people consult me on is anxiety when the source of that anxiety is unclear to them. When people are anxious about specific things in the world, like dogs, spiders or other people’s negative reactions, then at least the person knows what he or she is anxious about. However, a lot of people are anxious about being anxious and this is so common and yet so frequently misunderstood that such lack of knowledge leads to more anxiety.
Anxiety about anxiety occurs when you first experience a fearful reaction, say, while shopping, riding in a lift, driving in a car or even in your home. Having experienced this anxiety (problem 1) you begin to become anxious in case you get anxious again (problem 2). This double-barreled situation is the breeding ground for the development of your vicious circle of anxiety from which you find it so difficult to escape. Understanding this process is the first step to solving the problem.
Let me explain this vicious circle in greater detail. Once you have experienced anxiety “for no good reason,” you then bring an anxious attitude to the prospect of getting anxious. You think something like “Wouldn’t it be terrible if I got anxious.” Thinking in this way actually leads to anxiety. You then notice your anxiety and think something like “Oh my god, I’m getting anxious.” This leads to increased anxiety which triggers a further thought like “Oh my god, I’m losing control. What if I faint (or panic, have a heart attack or act crazily); wouldn’t that be terrible!” Anxiety is again heightened which leads to more anxious “thinking” and so on. Now this pattern occurs incredibly quickly and you probably are only aware of a building sense of panic. In addition, you may be one of a large number of people who “overbreathe” when you get anxious. This means that you take in too much oxygen and feel, paradoxically, that you need to breath in more air, whereas you actually need less. “Overbreathing” leads to such sensations as tingling, faintness, giddiness and heart palpitations. Without knowing this, you may consider that these sensations are evidence that there really is something wrong with you and “that would be awful.” This though leads to more anxiety and the vicious circle continues.