The Three Causes of Anxiety
14 Nov 2016
I’ve found it helpful to divide up the causes of anxiety into three groups.
In the past, my default response to anxiety was to try to change the universe.
My anxiety is caused by THIS circumstance, and if I can FIX THAT then the anxiety will go away.
For example: “I don’t live in the right place” or “I’m not dating the right person” or “my desk chair at work is giving me backache”.
Sometimes the examples were on a grander scale: “if the government weren’t awful, I would be less anxious”. Or “if the team I support won the league, I’d be happy.”
There’s probably some truth in all of those thoughts.
Having the dream job/relationship/home/social life/government would certainly help.
(As would having a comfier chair at work.)
But none of those things are within my direct control.
To varying extents, I can influence each of them. But I can’t bring any of them into reality myself.
For a while, my anxiety was always something that existed out there, and only changing the universe to suit me could possibly fix it.
Anxiety was external. It was something that was DONE to me by the universe.
Then I realised that my anxiety was more than just irritation with how my life was going.
Perhaps it was something deeper. If I “had anxiety”, didn’t that mean there was something WRONG with me?
It must be a chemical thing.
Again, there’s truth in this. Sometimes anxiety is (a bit) chemical. If improve my diet, exercise more, get enough sleep, and perhaps take medication, then the chemicals I experience as anxiety will balance out a little more.
But again… I can’t control this. I can’t directly alter my body chemistry.
I can take actions which may indirectly affect it. But I can’t alter it at will.
Anxiety was internal. It was an unconscious chemical flaw which was DONE to me by my own body.
But… just as with the external sources of anxiety, this isn’t the whole story.
There’s also everything which happens inside my head.
It feels as if internal-head-stuff is derided by modern society.
“It’s all in your head” is said in the same way as “it’s not real”; as if our heads and what happens inside them aren’t real.
Spoiler: you have never experienced anything that didn’t happen inside your own head.
What happens inside my head is the realest stuff there is. And the same holds true for each and every human on this planet.
(As far as I can tell, anyway. I haven’t been in anyone’s head but my own. But it seems like we all operate pretty much the same way. UNLESS THE REST OF YOU ARE ROBOTS.)
It took me a long time to come to this realisation.
Not that you’re all robots. I mean that I can change my thinking patterns and reactions and feel differently about things, and it’s NOT a cop-out, and it doesn’t mean accepting negative circumstances, and it is just as real as anything else.
It’s hard work. But luckily, unlike the entire universe and our body chemistry, our heads are also the only thing we can truly control.
Not perfectly, and not immediately. But with practice we can alter our reactions to everything. Those thinking patterns were learned through habit, and that means they can be unlearned through habit too.
Anxiety is internal, and it’s a process I participate in.
I think a complete response to anxiety requires making changes on all three of these levels.
Making an effort to fix whatever we can in our external circumstances, without being afraid of change, and without being too attached to any given outcome.
Making an effort to improve our bodily health: diet, exercise, sleep, medication (if our doctors think it’s appropriate).
And, most of all, making an effort to change our attitudes and patterns of thinking, by recognising the hidden custard traps which undermine our inner peace, and replacing them over time with positive thoughts.
That’s a long process, but for today, try to recognise where any anxiety you’re feeling is coming from. Is it REALLY from out there? Or is there some level of control you can take back over it – even if it’s only a tiny, tiny bit?
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.