How (and why) to tackle background anxieties
About eighteen months ago, just after coming out of full-time employment, I signed up for the NHS’ Back on Track service, which offers free CBT or counselling for people suffering from anxiety, stress, depression or other conditions that affect how you operate your day to day life. I had no idea what to do with my career. Lacking this knowledge (more on finding your life purpose here!), I felt I had too much time on my hands and was wasting it. I was constantly beating myself up for this and for all the things I wasn’t doing but felt I should be doing. All of this combined was affecting my mood and, consequently, my relationships with my family and close friends. It didn’t help that Winter was closing in – I’m more of a Summer person (especially as I’m awful at choosing Christmas presents).
To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect to get that much from CBT, but one of the problems I felt I was facing was a lack of structure and discipline (more on that here), and so I figured there were worse things than a long walk to Hammersmith once a week to spend half an hour talking to someone about how to tackle these problems. It turned out to be incredibly useful and far more practical than I had imagined. I learned a range of invaluable techniques and exercises to help me manage my negative thoughts and my body’s response to them. Here are a couple of my favourite examples:
‘Leaf on a Stream’: along with being a beautiful name for a song (watch this space!), this is an exercise which helps you manage NATs, or ‘negative automatic thoughts’ – these can be anything from the voice telling you you’re unworthy or insignificant, or that you’re friends don’t like you, or that disaster is just around the corner, and so on. When you identify these NATs drifting into your head, rather than trying to suppress them or ignore them, you simply acknowledge and visualise them as little words on a leaf floating along a stream in your mind. You watch them float by, just accepting them, and let them move out of your consciousness.
Another great exercise, focused on my lack of structure, involved taking my weekly calendar (I love Google Calendar – more on that here) and dividing up my various commitments into three different categories, each with its own colour:
- ‘Work’ (Green)
- ‘Social’ (Pink)
- ‘Relaxation’ (Blue)
To these I added a fourth: ‘Creative’ (Yellow). Obviously there is some overlap between these, but the idea is to visualise where you’re spending your time and see where you need to place more attention.
Of course, these techniques might seem breathtakingly simple; but the fact is, when you’re caught up in your own thoughts and anxieties, it can really help to take an objective look at what exactly is going on. They gave me a clearer understanding of the specific problems I was facing – breaking down ‘anxiety’ into its component parts. The main thing I gleaned from the sessions, and arguably the single most useful thing I have learned about myself in the last five years, was that I badly needed to stop beating myself up all the time. I decided to take the exercises a little further and try something I came up with especially for myself to tackle this ‘beating myself up’ in the background.
I wrote a list of all the things, no matter how infrequent or seemingly inconsequential, for which I was criticising myself. They were all things I was either (a) doing and oughtn’t be doing, or (b) not doing but ought to be doing. The list looked like this:
Go to more concerts
Write a novel
Cutting out bad TV/seen before
Drinking more water
Finishing more songs
Getting up earlier
Keeping in touch with friends
Keeping up with News/Politics
Learning about places before I visit them
Learning some classical guitar pieces
Sitting on bed playing guitar
Wasting less food
Working out finances etc
Obviously I looked at the list and realised a couple of things immediately. Firstly, it was physically impossible to do all of these things at once. Or, at least, it was impossible to start them all at once. Secondly, some of the things on the list are a little more trivial than others – I don’t need my own recipe book, no one wants to see me do stand-up, etc.
It was as if there were a playground bully living in my head, lobbing abuse at me, and I started to actually listen to what he was saying and realise that a lot of it was nonsense.
So my second step involved sorting them into three priority categories: high, medium and low. I made sure not to stack too much into the high priority column and I made sure to relegate to the ‘low’ column anything I felt only mild enthusiasm (sorting out my fashion style comes to mind).
I came up with a plan, which involved building my own master spreadsheet, to set near-term goals for each of these items and track my daily/monthly progress. (That’s a whole article in itself – more on that here.) The idea was to get myself into a rhythm that I felt like I was progressing and keeping on top of things, if not every day, then most days.
Specifically, I focused on learning some Spanish every day, doing yoga several times a week, working on an idea for a novel and carving out time to sit on my bed and play guitar (which could well be the single most important thing on the list). I also started writing a diary and in fact this list formed the first couple of pages of the diary.
To ensure this exercise retained its ongoing value, I came up with a plan to check in on the list once a month. I gave each item a mark out of 5, based on how I thought I was doing, and checked in to make sure each item was still in the correct ‘priority category’.
It is worth saying at this point that this technique is not about goal setting and increasing discipline – there are plenty of other posts about those (mine is here!). This is about tackling the specific problem of what I call ‘background anxiety’.
Why is this important? Apart from keeping you in a negative mindset and perhaps affecting how you engage with other people, background anxiety also clutters your mind and stops you thinking more clearly about what is genuinely important to you, and thus helps you define your purpose.
I would invite you to try this exercise, whether or not you feel you suffer from this background anxiety. Here are the steps again and please feel free to email me if you want to chat about this further or have any comments:
Step 1 – write a list of all the things you beat yourself up for doing or not doing
Step 2 – order the list into three priority categories: high, medium and low
Step 3 – turn the high priority items into specific short-term targets and create a system to work on them each day
Step 4 – check in once a month to your list, add or delete anything and note how you feel you’re doing across them all