Maybe things feel like they’re going pretty well in your life. You have close friends, a loving family, your relationship is going from strength to strength, you’re financially OK…
All is seemingly going to plan, except for one thing: you’re filled with a horrible sense of panic.
Perhaps you find yourself in a constant state of worry, or racked with feelings of guilt (even though you don’t necessarily know why) or you find yourself constantly ‘on edge’ waiting for disaster to strike.
Sometimes anxiety has a clear cause, but it can also appear seemingly out of the blue - like a frantic figure lingering in the background that we can’t quite shake off.
Unfortunately, when anxiety strikes with no clear reason it can feel like we’re stuck in a vicious cycle. Because if we don’t know why we’re struggling, how can we begin to overcome it?
It’s not always straightforward finding the reason for this kind of hidden anxiety. But the good news is there is a reason - because there is always a reason (and sometimes several of them).
And this means we can turn it around.
When we’re anxious for no reason, this is usually because we’ve allowed anxious feelings to fester and build up over time. To get to the root of what’s going on, it’s about getting down to the deepest part of ourselves.
Let’s think of it as a call for change.
If you’re feeling anxious for no reason, you might be familiar with some of the following:
A racing mind - life might feel like a never-ending cycle of worry. For some people, this could be from the moment they wake up until they go to bed.
Unpleasant physical symptoms - the mind-body link is well-known. And whilst most of us associate anxiety with predominantly mental and emotional symptoms, unfortunately it very often comes alongside difficult physical symptoms too: racing heartbeat, nausea, tummy pains (bloating, IBS-like symptoms, constipation, diarrhea), aching muscles.
‘Busy’ behaviours and paranoia - If you find yourself constantly checking on things (the oven, the front door, the hair straighteners etc) and get the sense that you never quite trust yourself then it might point to something deeper.
It might not feel like it, but anxiety’s main purpose is to protect you. Over time we have evolved to react to danger with the ‘flight or fight’ response. This is great when it spurs us on to revise pre-GCSE’s or gets the blood pumping so we can run faster and make the bus. But the body can also get stuck in this state of fight or flight, and this is when things go haywire. When we’re anxious for no reason, our body has essentially got stuck in protection mode.
Developing anxiety can rest on a number of different factors. Some are genetic, but many are also related to the kinds of experiences you had growing up and the mechanisms you learnt to cope with stress. Some of these can be related to:
How much emotional support you had growing up. Did you have a parent/s who was emotionally absent? Were you reprimanded when you caused ‘too much of a fuss’ or expressed yourself emotionally?
How secure your family life was growing up. Were you left alone a lot? Did you live through your parents stressful divorce? Was your family life a nourishing safe haven or did you just get on with things and keep yourself to yourself?
How well your parents coped with their own life stresses. Recent research has shown that anxiety can be passed on from parent to child through learned or mimicked behaviour.
Our thoughts and behaviour are learnt over-time. The more we feed and reinforce patterns of thinking and behaving the more we turn them into habits. Coping mechanisms we learnt from childhood continue on unless we make the conscious decision to choose new ways of responding. Think of it like gardening - you want to weed out the weeds and water the plants you want to flourish. When we get stuck in negative loops without recognising them for what they are, we empower them and enable them to grow into something much bigger.
It might feel as if there’s no reason for why we’re anxious, but if we dig deep enough there’s usually something stashed away there that we haven’t wanted to face. It’s time to put your detective hat on and get up close and personal.
If you find yourself feeling anxious but you’re not sure why, it’s worth considering any of the following:
Do you feel like you have a defined purpose and goal in life? Sometimes anxiety can come to the surface when we’ve veered off track somehow and lost sight of the bigger picture. Maybe we’ve stopped doing the things that really make us happy and provide us with a sense of fulfilment, or we’ve ended up in a vocation or lifestyle that doesn’t play to our skill-set and needs.
Loneliness and the feeling that you don’t have people you can rely on - it’s only human to feel lonely from time to time which is why having a solid support system around you is really important. As humans we are social beings and without those select few to talk about the important stuff with we can feel like we’re journeying through life alone.
Issues from childhood we haven’t faced up to or dealt with.
Feeling ‘trapped’ - whether it’s a dead-end job that pays the bills, or a relationship that has run its course, sometimes we can wind ourselves up in a situation we never planned for and that no longer supports our future goals.
Below are some immediate things you can do whilst you’re working on getting to the root of your anxiety:
Prioritise your sleep - brain chemicals which support our mental wellbeing are replenished when we sleep, and lack of sleep exacerbates anxiety so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of it. Often anxiety can make sleeping difficult, if that’s the case make sure you’re practising good sleep hygiene.
Start journaling - try writing 3 pages every morning before you get up. ‘Brain dumping’ helps you become better acquainted with your mind and get closer to the root of your anxiety. Worse case scenario, it sets you up with a clear head for the rest of the day.
Check-in with how you’re talking to yourself - anxiety can cause us to become very self-critical. Make a conscious effort to catch yourself when you start mind-chattering in a negative way. Research has shown that positive self-talk not only helps you feel better but also boosts motivation.
Become an active listener of your thoughts - mindfulness meditation is a great way to start tuning in to your inner dialogue. Taking a step back provides the space for greater clarity and awareness. And with awareness comes the power to choose the kinds of thoughts we engage with and the ones we don’t.
Track your moods - jotting how you’re feeling throughout the course of the day might give you some pointers for your triggers. For instance, you might find that you feel anxious on your way into work but that it lessens again when you’re on your commute home. Or that you’re anxious in the run up to a big social gathering.
Get good at spotting when your mind plays tricks on you - when we’re anxious, it’s easy for the mind to start playing tricks on us. These are known as cognitive distortions (or thinking traps). In fact, anxiety can dream up all kinds of lies and exaggerations which are not always easy to spot, especially if we not clued up on what we’re dealing with.
Next time you find yourself stuck in a worrying rut, try this CBT technique called ABCDE:
A - attention - stop the worry cycle in its tracks, and identify your thoughts.
B - believe - do you actually believe what your mind is telling you? Remember: thoughts are not facts, and you don’t need to believe everything.
C - challenge - what’s the evidence for this thought? Is this a fact or an opinion? (Most thoughts are opinion)
D - discount - if you identify your thoughts as opinion, recognise them as simply that. Consider it an ‘interesting’ alternative viewpoint and let it go.
E - energising - you just called out your mind. How good does this feel? Notice how this kind of problem solving benefits your mind and body.
Accept that you cannot control everything in life - an anxious mind is one that’s scared of uncertainty. No matter how hard we try we will never be able to control everything in life. Accepting uncertainty might feel scary but in reality it’s liberating.
Sometimes feeling anxious for no reason might point to part of a bigger problem that needs examining.
There are 3 main types of anxiety disorders: panic disorder, social anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is a type of anxiety disorder that can cause someone to feel constantly worried, even when there doesn’t seem to be a specific cause. In fact, a lot of people with GAD would say they have been “a worrier” for a long as they can remember.
GAD sometimes runs in families but it can also come on following trauma or a big life event or change e.g. the breakdown of a marriage, the loss of a loved one, growing up in a volatile household etc. Someone suffering from GAD might experience any of the following symptoms:
If you think you might be suffering from GAD, speaking to a therapist can help. CBT is particularly good for treating GAD as it teaches you different ways of thinking and relating to your thoughts, and can help you find healthier ways of responding to life’s challenges.
Anxiety is always a struggle. But when you don’t know how it’s happening, why it’s happening or when it’s going to strike again it can be especially challenging. Working with a therapist can help you get to the root of what’s troubling you. And once the underlying cause of anxiety is uncovered, we can begin to address it.
Remember that the power to enact change always rests with you.
Learn more about how to manage anxiety.