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30 Oct, 2020

Reframing Anxiety with Anna Mathur

Why do we feel anxious? How do we come to recognise our triggers? What does reframing one's anxiety mean and what does this consist of? We put these questions and more to psychotherapist and bestselling author Anna Mathur.

Health

Why do we feel anxious? How do we come to recognise our triggers?

Anxiety is basically fear. It’s a response triggered by something, be it a worry, a thought, an experience or a situation in which we feel at threat somehow. In that moment, whether it’s imagined or real, our safety, or the things we look to in order to feel safe and grounded feel jeopardised. Our thoughts rush ahead at 100mph, often searching for ways to feel safe again. This is a nervous system response called the 'fight or flight response'. It’s a primal, physical reaction to danger, that gives us a spurt of adrenaline so that we might act quickly.

The challenge is that in our modern-day life, we are no longer purely having a physical response to a physical trigger, like having our lives threatened by a bear outside of our cave. Most of the things that trigger this fight or flight response are internal. It is down to the way we think about situations, and how we brace ourselves when we feel threatened by something. Many of us spend time overthinking. Our minds hurtle off down the roads of many different possibilities and scenarios with the hope of protecting ourselves from the pain of them happening, as if pre-empting something gives us a sense of control. Our body is wired to believe that these situations are real, and so acts accordingly. We often feel waves of fear, grief, sadness, terror and loss, even though that thing hasn’t, or may never happen.

Recognising your triggers enables you to gain control over the runaway train that is anxiety. When you start noticing your thoughts pick up speed, or your heart racing and breath getting shallower, you can use certain techniques to help re-ground and calm yourself. You are grabbing the gears and breaks of that runaway train, using your strength to bring it to a safe halt. This brings you back to your ‘rest and digest’ state, enabling you to think with more clarity and rationality.

You run an interactive course designed to help people reframe their anxiety. What does reframing one's anxiety mean? And what does this consist of?

Reframing anxiety to me, means to really understand what it is. Sometimes knowledge really is power and knowing what is happening in your mind and body when you feel anxious, can enable you to regain control of it, rather than feeling controlled by it. Reframing your anxiety means to know it, to understand how it ticks, and to not be fearful of it.

It means to see it differently, as something less threatening, and to feel absolute hope that you can address it in a way that will find you living more authentically with less fear. As humans we tend to have more fear around the things we know less about. They feel unpredictable and overwhelming. Reframing anxiety is like seeing that the dog that was barking around the corner, and sounded so terrifying, was actually a small, fluffy Chihuahua.

You’ve said that anxiety isn’t all bad. What positives can we find in our anxiety?

Anxiety is a mechanism there to save your life. It’s your internal warning system, it helps you be more vigilant and aware of what’s going on around you. If you are an anxious person, you’re more likely to make safer decisions, and to be more responsive to those around you too. You might be the person who notices someone isn’t feeling themselves, or quick to respond when things go awry.

Anxiety in and of itself is not bad! However, when the anxiety response is triggered consistently, or unnecessarily, it can really inhibit and impact your life. It can consume precious headspace, and taint what could be positive life experiences and relationships.

Your Instagram content is brilliant. We loved your recent post on the word ‘just’ (“me: I’m tired. I need to slow down. Also me: I’m just going to paint Florence’s play house whilst cooking dinner and answering emails.”). You say that when you say ‘just’, often it’s because you know you should be doing something else like resting, connecting or resetting. How do you advise someone who finds it hard to ‘relax’ to approach rest?

I think it’s vital to realise that rest is the only antidote to overwhelm and burnout. So many of us live on the rollercoaster that is ‘living life at 100mph and then crashing into an emotional heap’. It’s not a kind or compassionate way to treat ourselves. We often set ourselves up for our own criticism and disappointment with the high standards and expectations that we set for ourselves. We can easily find ourselves in a place where our basic needs feel like an inconvenience such as eating well or drinking enough water.

Culturally we have a developed a narrative that to be a good and loving person is to use every last tiny bit of energy, to be efficient, to be spent. But when we repeatedly spend everything we have, we lose ourselves. We lose the sparkle in our eyes, the ease in our breath, the relaxation of our shoulders. We need a contingency of energy to be able to face life’s inevitable curveballs.

You can fill your life doing endless small things, but if you leave no breathing space for yourself, you’ll lose the very essence of who you are. It has a high cost, this way of living. Sometimes realising that alone, is enough to encourage someone to move ‘rest’ higher up the list of priorities.

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Anna Mathur is a psychotherapist and bestselling author. Keep up with her on her website www.annamathur.com and IG @annamathur.

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