How beliefs are key to understanding our anxiety:
Like emotions, beliefs are one of four key areas in our lives that affect how we manage anxiety.
Our emotions, thoughts/beliefs, physical bodies and our behaviours. Each has an impact on the other and they all are crucial to understanding how we get anxious.
The link between beliefs/interpretations and emotions is undeniable. Take for instance what happens when we suddenly remember we have forgot something. The pang that that leaves inside us is heavy and real, all caused by some thoughts in our head!
Our thoughts and first impression are not always right. This is a important discovery for many of us to make. Many people will say that we should trust our gut, but if our gut/brain is interpreting things through the lens of past experiences we may be in for trouble.
A key point to remember about our emotions is that they are our reaction to what we perceive. If I told someone they passed the test and I told someone else they failed, they will have different reactions and feelings. But, I may have just mixed up the results.
More subtly than this, we infer off our previous experience and beliefs and then attribute our own meanings onto the actions of others. If we fall into the 15 distorted thinking styles outlined in our other articles, then we can trick our emotions into believing the worst is true.
For example: if we have an inner belief that we are not a good parent, friend or colleague we can magnify one mistake at the expense of all the different evidence that we are doing a good job.
If we fear abandonment by our partner: we see normal and routine behaviours through the lens of abandonment and magnify them as real, thereby inducing the feeling we feared. The feeling of being abandoned might be familiar to us and unwanted, therefore it makes us anxious as we can’t deal with it
The key to this is Projection. This happens when we see the things we fear or the way we feel in others and situations. A room full of people waiting to hear us speak are all going to notice our ugliest feature and laugh at us. A girlfriend with male friends is going to cheat on us. If people really got to know us they will think we are boring.
More than likely no, no they are not! In these situations, the feeling the person projects is already within themselves.
The person that worries about being seen as ugly already thinks they are ugly and feels bad about that. The boyfriend that fears infidelity and checks his girlfriends phone because she has male friends secretly feels he is unlovable maybe because they were abandoned before. The person at the party feels shame and doesn’t like themselves because deep down they think that they are boring!
Our brains tend to hide these beliefs from us but plaster them all over others. The belief in us may be irrational, but it conjures the feelings just the same. We give it further credence by imagining it in the minds of others.
How beliefs become unconscious:
We all hold unconscious beliefs about ourselves that govern how we manoeuvre through life. The reason we are so nice to kids is that we want them to develop good ones, but sometimes even despite the best parenting we internalise unhealthy beliefs about ourselves.
A bad potty-training experience can develop us into thinking inside we are dirty or bad. An absent parent can make us feel unlovable. A mean teacher or bullies means at a deep level we think we are stupid or different. We can do clean, lovable, interesting and smart things our whole lives, but deep down we still feel these things about ourselves.
When facing the triggers for these beliefs we can feel intolerable feelings, then trip our central nervous system and launch into anxiety.
But how often are there beliefs right? A belief system could be compared to the basic code used in the processor of a computer. The first layers of code are foundational, and we build from there and use it to process what happens in our lives.
If we think about it, our first impressions and layers of code were laid down by us when we were really very young.
Ever seen a child write a story? It’s very basic and literal right? Welcome to most people’s core beliefs! “I am unlovable because mommy and daddy broke up”. “There is something nasty about me because I wet the bed”. “There is something ugly about me because other kids bullied me.”
Think about that 4, 5, 6 or whatever year old and ask what sense did they make of the things that happened to them? I guarantee the little ones were not everything they took personally. Every child has goodness and sweetness. But children always make the story about them. Believe it or not this is what many of us build our belief systems out of.
What if that child was wrong and there was nothing wrong with them? Wouldn’t that make a hell of a difference to life?
The anxiety cycle:
This brings us home to how many of our anxieties are maintained. How what we fear, we project into the world unconsciously, ironically making them come true. The thing for many of us is don’t see how we have these destructive beliefs, they are held deep within.
The beliefs we project are stuck in us because our original needs weren’t met or we were traumatized. Unmet needs and horrible situations meant that we had to compensate by making sense of “why”. The compensation piece means that when triggered we see parts of life through that lens.
We look for and unconsciously expect the same disappointment.
The bodies answer to finding the feeling is to activate our defence system which gives us the physical sensation and manifestation of anxiety (tension, racing thoughts, can’t sleep, edgy, short tempered, dizzy, sweating, etc.). From this heightened state we can be in a constant state of panic, racing thoughts and behaviors to soothe the anxiety.
Beliefs are a central part of anxiety no doubt! Situations trigger our beliefs/interpretations, the belief/interpretation triggers the emotion or possibility of it (lowness, rejection, shame, fear, etc.), this triggers the central nervous system and this manifests as our anxiety. But it all might be based off something our adult brain knows isn’t true….
Managing the beleifs/thoughts:
While emotions are real, they can be triggered by false flag thinking. Knowing our unconscious beliefs (which are probably tied to our forbidden emotions) will mean we have more control and mastery than before.
I tell clients always to think about their thoughts and where they come from. I have a model to explain our belief system from deep beliefs to momentary thoughts/evaluations. To explain it I would invite the reader to imagine tree.
The leafy green top of the tree and all the leaves are our everyday thoughts. There are hundreds of them, they come and go and change. They fall away and more grow. It’s a busy tree!
The branches that thoughts grow from are our assumptions. Such as an assumption that we are in safe part of town. If we assume this our thoughts will be relaxed. If we assume it is a dangerous part of town then the thoughts will be negative.
Our negative assumption branches give us our negative automatic thinking leaves. These can be about ourselves, others and the world. Following an accident, we can assume that the world is more dangerous, hence we have negative thoughts about that. We also have a negative confirmation bias and look for the evidence to fit the theory.
Assumptions change over time and just like a tree with too many branches sometimes the best thing to do it just cut some off altogether.
At the deeper level of the tree we have the roots. In the belief tree the roots are our core beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. The core beliefs come from childhood, society, religion and our families of origin.
When negative, these beliefs and assumptions drive our anxiety; just as positive assumptions and core beliefs about ourselves can drive our success!
Emotions and beliefs are hard to separate because they come so tied together. But by learning to explore our beliefs and challenge them, and by tolerating our emotions I think most of us will find there is little need to be anxious.
Underneath all that we might find that we are alright, even lovable. That breeds confidence, tolerance, clarity, motivation, and attracts other good things and people into our lives!
There is no short cut to these conundrums. I work with clients in therapy every week to help them to deepen their self-knowledge and compassion because we are all always on that journey! Even the therapists!
Therapy is a great way to get to the bottom of these questions and at Anxiety Ireland, we have a team of accredited psychotherapists who work helping thousands of people with anxiety every year.
If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics. We are always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948.
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Team Anxiety Ireland
Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going nowhere fast, it’s ok to step off.