10 Things Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Taught Me About Anxiety

As I’m writing this, the discoveries I have made about myself since starting CBT are still fresh in my mind and it has changed the way I see myself and how I live my life in ways I couldn’t even imagine.

We are all different human beings and we are driven via millions and millions of diverse thought processes and mindsets and I’ve found talking about my issues really helpful because it helps you discover things about yourself.

The misunderstanding about therapy is often the idea that someone is going to be telling you you’ve done everything wrong so far, or telling you to change the way you are.

It’s nothing like that, they are there to help you discover stuff or make you realise things for yourself.

My initial reach out to therapy was for a supposed fear of flying.

Turns out it wasn’t that at all.

Remove the word should. That’s all you need to do.

This year has been one big goal to reduce, remove and resolve my anxiety and having cognitive behaviour therapy has changed my life.

As you may or may not know from my previous post about travel, I’ve suffered from increasing anxiety in the later part of my twenties which flares up most terrifyingly when I go away on holiday. Up until the time I finally decided to deal with it, ‘battling through’ seemed the ‘bravest’ option and the only option which seemed available. Truthfully, all that really did was invite other stressors and triggers in where they started latching on to other areas of my life and causing havoc - and I just couldn’t have it anymore.

I realise that anxiety and stress are an inevitable part of life, but the way we deal with it in whatever form it comes in (family, friends, work, travelling, food, drink etc) is a choice and we can decide how it affects us, if at all.

Let me also say, that deciding to take control of your mental and physical health by reaching out for help or solace is incredibly brave. Brave because you have decided to overcome a problem and stare it right in the face.

This year has seen the start of a positive change to the way I’ve been choosing to live my life and how I’ve been letting things/people affect me. It’s been a year of self discovery where I’ve done some much needed learning about who I am, why my mind works the way it does and questioning how and why I have been letting my anxiety make me feel useless, fragile and unhappy and how I can choose to change it.

I’ve learned stress and anxiety are completely natural responses from our bodies and we are equipped with these responses for a reason and are very useful in helping us to identify an imbalance which needs dealing with. Of course, our bodies are fantastic for helping us deal with fear with our natural fight and flight, but in this day and age there is no need for it to kick off so regularly and it just causes us inconvenience. They are intelligent beyond fathomable explanation and I believe they are absolutely capable of coping with the conflict life can sometimes throw in the mix.

Our lack of confidence in ourselves blurs the force of our capabilities which is when fear and anxiety come strolling in and start throwing their weight around.

Probably one of the most memorable insights from my very first CBT session was the idea of making one simple adjustment to the amount of pressure I put on myself to please everyone. Little did I know that this would cause a really positive shift almost instantly to my mindset and the rest would follow.

A really simple but very effective change was to reduce the use of one very common word I didn’t know I was using all too often. I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself to feel one way about something but actually felt the complete opposite - all because I felt like I ‘should’ - I wasn’t being true to myself; should being the main culprit.

In that first ever counselling session my therapist picked up pretty early on the kinds of sentences spilling from my very nervous mouth: ‘I know I shouldn’t feel this way’ and ‘I know I should just be feeling what ‘normal’ people feel’. She very simply pointed out that when it comes to your own, personal feelings there isn’t really such thing as what you should feel. What you feel is what you feel and that’s okay because they are your feelings. We are all different human beings (I know, it’s true) and we are all driven and motivated by millions of diverse thought processes and mindsets. If, for any reason, you don’t feel 100% about something or don’t feel comfortable with a situation and you don’t know why, that’s perfectly fine too - that’s the only way it can be. Forcing yourself to feel differently is unnatural, so how can we be expected to act any other way? Why are some things so glaringly bloody obvious yet you can’t see them?

By applying a word like ‘should’ to my thoughts wasn’t doing me any favours and it’s not useful for those of us who have had to battle with the effects of stress and anxiety. It’s just not at all bloody helpful to put that kind of pressure on yourself, which is exactly what I was doing.

It was also recommended that I compare myself against who I want to be at the end of the counselling sessions (when it gets to that point) instead of measuring myself against those who don’t suffer with anything remotely like anxiety. Once again, doing that to myself was not at all bloody helpful!

As a way to change the way I think about my anxiety for now and the future, my counsellor suggested some exercises to adjust my mental process. It wasn’t enough to simply wish I felt ‘normal’ during severe bouts of anxiety and end up fighting against the distress of nausea, relentless heart palpitations and not being able to think straight - I needed to accept these symptoms and realign my relationship with them. These feelings are nothing to be ashamed of, in fact they are most likely there for a reason and they flare up regularly because I still hadn’t truly dealt with them - I’d just be thankful that when they’d subsided they’d gone away and felt relieved, hoping they didn’t come back any time soon, which of course they did because that’s what happens.

So, once you’ve accepted you can work on how understanding them and ultimately making less problematic. One of the ways I did this was by removing that word and it made such a difference! For example, the minute I booked a long haul flight I started panicking and it was all I could think about. Even months before, I would start thinking about all the things that could happen and trying to imagine myself in the scenario already (sitting on the plane, will there be turbulence, what can I do to pass the time etc) and almost automatically I would feel my appetite disappear and nausea set in, bed time became a problem because I would convince myself I won’t be able to sleep thinking about it.

But once again, these feelings are okay. Once I had accepted them, I could think clearly and see everything for what it really was - nothing to worry about!

So is it really any surprise that putting pressure on ourselves to feel like we ‘should’ be doing one thing or another just causes our stress response to intensify when we are already in the middle of feeling vulnerable, loss of control, fear or panic?

Rephrasing my thought process about certain situations has been such an effective method of managing my anxiety for the long term. A key thing to consider is to stay positive. Without the belief in yourself that you can change the way you approach your fears is going to make it even harder to see the rewards of such change.

Past: ‘I know I shouldn’t feel this way about flying, I should consider myself lucky and should just get on with it and stop being such a baby’.

Present: ‘I know flying long haul isn’t one of my most ideal situations and I’d prefer not to get myself worked up, so I’ll spend some time researching why I could feel this way through whatever means I feel necessary - counselling, therapy, self-help books - and if I still end up getting myself into a state then at least I will hopefully have a bit more understanding why and can work on this for the future.

So, I’ll be adapting the way I ‘should’ do things from now on and work on changing that word.