walking on custard

A Simple Idea to Help With Repetitive Anxiety

15 Jan 2019

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

In the past, I’d regularly get trapped in the exact same worry over and over.

Often, it would be health anxiety. For example, I’d experience a symptom of some kind. And I’d immediately imagine that this symptom was coming from the worst possible cause. Perhaps a pain would be in my leg, and I’d think “that’s a blood clot, travelling to my lungs to kill me”.

For the rest of the day—week? month?—I’d struggle to concentrate on anything else, constantly fighting to keep my attention from the impending doom.

After years of living through this exact cycle, I realised I wasn’t learning anything. It was just the same thing, over and over and over again.

So, I started a tally chart.

Each time I DIDN’T die of a blood clot—and, so far, this is literally every time!—I added a mark to the tally. I simply kept count of the cycles.

After a few months, whenever I experienced a similar pain, I’d remember the chart. I’d recognise that this was just like every other time. The symptoms were no different. So this was most probably the same thing again.

My brain stopped jumping straight to the worst case scenario, and the most likely scenario—”it’s just a passing pain”—felt more real. As a result, the anxiety was reduced… to the point that I no longer experience it.

This technique isn’t magic, and it didn’t solve anything on its own. (I was also doing lots of other work to unpick the habit of catastrophising.)

But it helped.

By the way, I’m not saying I was wrong to worry about this! After all, blood clots (and other objects of repetitive fears) do exist! But it wasn’t helping me to assume that every single weird pain I experienced was a blood clot. My feelings and fears ought to be in tune with reality, and I was blowing them out of proportion.

This little technique simply helped get my emotions into proportion with reality.

It may not work for everyone, or for every situation, but if you find yourself in a similar cycle of “repetitive worries that never turn out to be true” then perhaps keeping count of the times you’ve passed through the cycle might help.

If nothing else, it’ll remind the brain that “hey, we’ve been through this cycle a few times before”. It might even increase confidence that this time we actually should take action or seek help. Sometimes, that is the right thing to do!

As ever, feel free to disregard the idea if it doesn’t sound relevant or helpful.

I hope you’re having an excellent day ❤

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2023
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