Overcoming Anxiety Through Understanding Reactive Triggers

Photo by Lee Key on Unsplash

I used to think of anxiety as something that was always nearby, like a monster under the bed, or hiding around a corner ready to pounce when I least expected it. Like everyone, I had good days and bad days, but as a sufferer of anxiety attacks, I lived in a constant state of fear; when would I next be reduced to huddling on the floor, hoping the earth would swallow me up?

Anxiety makes you introspective, even if you don’t want to be. As my attacks became more consistent, and I began noticing precursors to the attacks — such as the swirling feeling in my stomach, and a throbbing at the back of my head — a pattern started to develop. While there was no consistency in the timing of the attacks, it became apparent that the precursors, or advance symptoms, were being activated by external circumstances. My theory about the monster hiding and waiting to pounce was apparently incorrect. Instead, the monster was standing right in front of me, with a list of reasons he was going to give me a fright stapled to his forehead.

My therapist told me that as a writer, I should start journalling at a deeper level than I currently was. He advised me not to be afraid of my feelings, or concerned that I may uncover something I didn’t want to find — two of my biggest fears at the time. I started by writing down the advance symptoms I would experience before anxiety kicked in. From this, I gained a clearer picture as to the journey I went through from feeling good, through to being a puddle on the floor. It wasn’t always the same, but inevitably as the patterns emerged, certain symptoms became recognisable.

I began writing down when these symptoms were triggered, and started determining what triggered them.

A meeting that didn’t go well.

A comment made by a friend or colleague.

An image, which links to a thought, which connected to a memory.

I ended up with a list of triggers, precursors which activated my advance symptoms, and cause me to have anxiety attacks, or feelings of extreme anxiety. The list was evolving and I started to wonder why certain stimulus — completely unrelated from the actual feeling of anxiety — would cause me to enter an almost laughably consistent journey towards anxiety and fear.

As suggested, I used journalling as a tool to go deeper and attempt to learn the reasons these triggers were being activated, in the hope that I would find something that could help me understand. I started writing down how each of the triggers made me feel, and why those feelings had such an impact on me. Slowly, I started to build a picture that involved stressful periods of my childhood and early adult life.

The terrible teacher I had when I was five, who told me that I thought I was clever, but that I wasn’t.

My first boss, who laughed at my failures.

The girl who broke my heart (as much a thirteen year old heart can be broken).

My list of triggers was turning into something more akin to a badly created graph, or an old fashioned ledger for a company that wasn’t doing very well. Back in therapy, each experience I had been through, no matter how mundane or pointless it seemed from the outside was inspected in detail. At the time, I had no idea of the impact this would have but it was transformational. I found myself experiencing less symptoms when I thought of the scenarios. The boss who laughed at me, became a memory I had explored so many times that it no longer seemed to have any power. The teacher who laughed at my lack of academic progress became a story, but not one my body chemistry needed to comment on. And the girl who broke my heart, well, I now give that as much energy as it always deserved — evidently thirteen year olds don’t know much about love.

Suddenly, certain scenarios that would have activated the symptoms previous to an anxiety attack didn’t happen as much. I started recognising the reasons I was being activated, and as a result the symptoms didn’t eventuate, or at least weren’t as extreme. When someone laughed at me, I recognised the reason I felt a pain in my stomach, but I had an increased sense of control over my emotions. It was almost as if the monster was no longer scary, just a bit annoying.

The problem had been that the scenarios had been triggered reactively. In other words, I often didn’t even remember the scenario itself, but the symptoms I experienced were triggered anyway. My therapist told me it has something to do with the subconscious and brain efficiency, but the technicalities are far less interesting to me than the results.

So if this process is so simple, and evidently quite well-known, why doesn’t everyone with anxiety just use it? Because in order to confront memories that are the source material for your triggers, you need to relive them, acknowledge that they exist and bring them back into existence in the current moment. Speaking for myself, it was a terrifying and sickening experience that took time, emotional energy and left me feeling shattered after each session.

In mindfulness, we are taught to be in the moment. The reason for that is that there is no fear or anxiety in the present. Fear is anticipation of the future, and anxiety is a combination of regret — which only exists in the past — and fear. But merely existing in the present isn’t enough to eradicate anxiety; the memories from the past must be brought into the present moment also, and then their power over you can be removed.

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