Anxiety Is Usually A Misuse Of The Imagination

This brings us on to another major cause of anxiety - whatever form it takes: our imagination. Anxious people tend to have very good imaginations, the trouble is they continually, albeit unintentionally, misuse them to generate emotionally arousing worry.

For example, if you are always lying awake in the wee hours, worrying "What if ?" and imagining ever more dire outcomes for yourself or those you care about, you are generating vivid, negative fantasies that keep you in a constant state of fight-or-flight arousal. If you are fearful of spiders or cats or bird feathers or mirrors or metals, you may spend a lot of your time imagining scenarios in which you might come across them, as well as imagining the panic you will feel.

If you carry out compulsive rituals to ward off bad things from happening, you may also spend a lot of time imagining the bad outcomes that the rituals are intended, however vainly, to prevent. And so forth. Imagination is not innocuous. It is a powerful, useful tool, but it can also undermine some people, particularly those prone to pessimism. In Part 2 we will discover how to turn that power to good. Now that it should be clear what is going on physiologically, mentally and emotionally when we are over-anxious, we can better understand what is happening in particular types of anxiety disorders. Let's take a look at them one by one, in the light of these new understandings.

Generalised anxiety

Generalised anxiety is extremely common. Doctors diagnose what they term' generalised anxiety disorder' if someone has been worrying for a minimum of six months about at least two specific stressful life events - an impending divorce, redundancy, bereavement or financial problems, for instance - and has been experiencing a range of anxiety symptoms, such as: 

  • feeling agitated
  • irritability
  • inability to relax
  • difficulty concentrating
  • mind going blank
  • feelings of foreboding
  • continual worrying
  • feelings of depression

Accompanying physical symptoms of anxiety, such as:

  • muscle tension
  • difficulty sleeping
  • restlessness 
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • upset stomach
  • dry mouth
  • heart palpitations
  • sweatines 
  • dizziness
  • quick, shallow breathing

It doesn't really matter, however, whether you meet these criteria or not. What matters is that you are suffering from a degree of anxiety that is adversely affecting your life at the moment and you want to do something about it.

People who have generalised anxiety don't suffer from panic attacks or phobias but they do feel overtaken by a sense of fear. This fear is often formless or else may be centred on something that it isn't irrational to fear (such as illness, child-birth or dying) but they feel unable to do anything to help themselves face it more calmly.

Sometimes worries may focus on an inability to cope, fears of failure, children's welfare or sexual performance. Whatever the cause, the worries often become all pervading. For instance, a sense of apprehension may be triggered if a person finds that they have to take a different bus or route from the one that they usually take; or that they need to go to a part of the country they have never visited before; or to visit the dentist; or study a new course. Or they may spend time worrying about whether their children are being molested at school or their elderly mother has managed to get safely to the shops and back.

One woman described her anxiety in terms of a dial. "Other people's dials are at zero, unless they have reason to turn them on. I'm never below a 1, even at my best."

It is a highly uncomfortable, troubling feeling to be anxious almost all of the time and it takes a toll on our body, of course. For now we know that the symptoms described above are either elements of the fight-or-flight response or the physical or psychological consequences of not being able to take action to dispel the arousal. The stress hormones keep on circulating and we are in a state of almost constant hyper-alert.

Generalised anxiety often starts during a period when we have to deal with more major stresses than we can cope with at anyone time. These could include financial difficulties, a serious illness (our own or that of someone close to us), trouble at work or an important relationship breakdown, and even events that one might think of as being positive, such as having a baby, moving house or starting college. It can also develop after traumatic events, such as abuse or a serious accident.

A client of a psychologist, for instance, developed an anxiety disorder after enduring an unexpected, dramatic and cruel humiliation at work. Some people are more prone to anxiety responses because of the kind of thinking styles we looked at earlier. Others lack confidence generally in themselves and in their abilities, and so worry more about a great many things.

Whatever the reasons, if you recognise yourself in these descriptions, there are new actions you can take and new skills you can learn that will help you live your life, with pleasure, instead of fearing it.

Continued in this article: How poor sleep can turn worry into depression