Handling Anxiety: Noticing Patterns
Anxiety is a part of life. It can be a good thing, helping to motivate us to change something for the better. But at times anxiety can become difficult to manage. Sometimes it's for a brief time and the anxiety passes, but other times it lingers and can impact our day-to-day life. Whether you personally experience anxiety, have a child who experiences anxiety, or even if you just want to be prepared for future anxiety, there is an important skill you can learn: noticing patterns. Here, I will provide details about this skill, why it's important, and how you can begin to notice important patterns.
When treating anxiety, often the most effective form of treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). One of the core components of CBT is the idea of thoughts, feelings, and actions all being linked. These links (which I'll detail in a future post) tend to create patterns over time, which need to be identified in order for treatment to progress.
Anxiety patterns can take many forms. Sometimes a situation (e.g., being high up in a building) can trigger thoughts/feelings (e.g., fear of heights), which can then influence our behaviors (e.g., avoiding tall buildings). The formation of these patterns is usually so automatic that we don't realize they are happening.
Patterns can also be just thoughts. Do you ever find yourself thinking about an upcoming task that you really don't want to do? That can trigger other thoughts of how bad that task is, which can lead to regrets that you need to do that task in the first place, and so on. Before you know it, you've gone from having a good day to feeling terrible and not wanting to do anything.
In order to break these patterns, they first need to be recognized, and there are a few ways to do that. First, it can help to reflect in hindsight to see what you notice. If you're reading this post and get the feeling that it applies to you, then chances are you've already started to reflect back and notice some patterns. They may not be obvious, and that's ok, but you at least notice that there are some sort of patterns.
A good starting place is to continuously look for patterns in hindsight. Try to develop a habit of thinking back every few days, or at the end of every day. When looking for patterns, think back to times you were anxious, then think about what happened just before and right after. You will likely find the same patterns tend to come up again and again after you've been doing this for some time.
The next step is to work towards noticing the patterns as they are happening. It can be difficult, and it usually takes time, so try to not be frustrated if you struggle at first. Something that can help is to keep a journal throughout the day. As soon as you realize a pattern happened, record exactly what happened (especially paying attention to what happened right before, some sort of trigger).
For those who have an anxious child, this identification can be challenging. Young children often do not have the insight to realize they are anxious, so they are unable to identify and communicate it to a caregiver. Instead, it can be helpful for parents to watch for behaviors related to avoiding situations, or behaviors that are common signs of anxiety (such as being "antsy," seeming scared, breathing quickly, and so on). When these behaviors are noticed, try to think about what happened just before the anxiety started (e.g., did they get some news?) and what they may be expecting to happen soon (e.g., are they worried that something will hurt?).
Through practice, attention, and recording, you slowly develop the skill of catching the patterns sooner and sooner. Eventually you're not only able to identify them as they are happening, but you'll be able to recognize when it is about to happen. And that's when the best work can be done using the skills I describe below.
The exact way to break an anxiety pattern varies, depending on what is causing anxiety and how a person reacts to that anxiety (e.g., negative thoughts vs. avoiding situations). In general, there are a few skills that can work well.
The first is use of relaxation techniques. When people are anxious, they often have a physical reaction of some sort (e.g., heart racing, feeling "on edge," palms sweat). These reactions can be a cue that you're experiencing anxiety, which can help with the pattern identification, but they also prolong the anxiety. When we physically react to anxiety, our minds default to assuming there is something to fear based on our body's reaction. By reducing the physical reaction, the anxiety can be reduced or stopped.
Different techniques work for different people. In my work, I most often suggest deep breathing because it's simple, can be done without others noticing, and doesn't require having anything with you (e.g., a stress ball). For deep breathing, it's important to take slow breaths, trying to fill the bottom of the lungs first, then all the way to the top of the lungs. When talking to kids about deep breathing, it can help to talk about it as "tummy breathing," as their tummy will move outwards when they fill the bottom of their lungs instead of their chests moving outwards.
If deep breaths don't work for a person, there are alternatives that can be tried. Squeezing a stress ball, or having some form of physical thing to play with using their hands, can work well. Listening to music, using scented candles, and other similar sensory things can also help. It can take some trial and error, but there is generally something that will work as a "go to" for each person, and there will be some techniques that can act as back-ups.
The above techniques work well when a person's anxiety reactions are mainly physical. But what about when they are mainly thought-based? Many people have trouble falling asleep because their mind is racing between their worries, and they aren't having a physical reaction at all (other than tiredness the next day!).
When anxiety is mainly thought-based, mindfulness can be really helpful. "Mindfulness" is a term used a lot lately, as it has become a hot topic that many discuss. Unfortunately, that also makes it a confusing term because many people use it in different ways. It's often used alongside meditation, so a lot of people assume they are the same. Meditation generally includes mindfulness, but mindfulness is something that can be practiced without meditating.
Mindfulness can be hard to describe, but I will do my best. When people have anxious thoughts, their reaction is often to "push" the thoughts away, to attempt forcing them out of their mind. This can work temporarily, but the thoughts almost always come back (and sometimes stronger than before).
Instead, mindfulness involves noticing a thought and accepting that thought. Rather than "push" the thought away, the thought can be allowed to "run its course," and/or focus can be shifted to something else. It's a small difference, but one that has a completely different effect. By accepting the thoughts that come to mind, being ok with them, and choosing to shift focus back to something else (rather than forcing the thought away), the anxious thoughts generally happen less often. Not only that, but it becomes easier to shift your thoughts away from them over time.
Part of shifting your focus to something else usually involves having something specific to focus on. This can be your breathing, something you're looking at, or any other present sensation. If you're walking down the sidewalk, mindfulness could just be shifting your focus to your surroundings and looking at the scenery; you don't have to sit on a pillow and focus on your breaths to be mindful. The main idea is focus on something else, not to focus on not thinking about an anxious thought.
By recognizing patterns, using the skills above as anxiety happens (or ideally before the anxiety even occurs), and being consistent, anxiety can be reduced to levels that do not interfere with day-to-day life. It can be difficult, which is why it may help to have others to help you.
For children who are anxious, it helps to have a parent who can assist with identifying patterns. Parents can also help by prompting children to use their skills when they know the child is anxious (or expect that the child is about to become anxious). It can be as simple as "ok, let's take some deep breaths, everything is going to be fine, you've got this." Modeling good deep breathing, or other coping skills, is also helpful.
For adults, or parents who are struggling to help their child, it can help to work with a therapist. We're trained on how to identify relevant patterns, and we know a large number of coping skills that can be tried until you're able to find something that works. Even if you've been in therapy before and/or have your anxiety generally well managed, it can help to talk with a therapist if you start to experience anxiety again. Life is very complicated because all of the different aspects of life influence one another, and there may be a new pattern that is difficult to notice without the insight of a trained therapist looking from the outside.
Hopefully this post has been helpful. Whether you personally struggle with anxiety, have a child who does, or just know somebody who has anxiety and you wanted to know more about what that can be like. This post by no means covers all of the details of anxiety or CBT, but it covers one of the core components.
And this post is by no means meant to be an alternative to therapy. I've provided some suggestions which may help with occasional anxiety, but if anxiety is having an impact on day-to-day life then I recommend seeking a qualified therapist.
Have any questions about identifying anxiety patterns? Do you have ideas about techniques that could help overcome anxiety? Let me know in the comments!