We are no strangers to feelings of anxiety – at certain stages of our lives or in particular situations, we would have experienced anxiousness and worry with relation to our careers, studies, relationships and even our environment. However, anxiety levels may go beyond the healthy norm for some people, and may instead develop into anxiety disorders that may have a debilitating effect on their lives. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), an individual who suffers from an anxiety disorder is described to have “recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns”, where the duration and severity in which the individual experiences anxiety could be blown out of proportion to the original stressor, resulting in undesirable tension and other physical alterations. In this article, we will be exploring a few types of anxiety disorders as well as how they can manifest within us.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a psychological issue characterised by persistent and pervasive feelings of anxiety without any known external cause. People who are diagnosed with GAD tend to feel anxious on most days for at least six months, and could be plagued by worry over several factors such as social interactions, personal health and wellbeing, and their everyday routine tasks. For example, an individual with GAD may find himself experiencing headaches, cold sweats, increased irritability and frequent feelings of “free-floating” anxiety. Others may also experience muscle tension, sleep disruptions or having difficulty concentrating. Often, the sense of anxiety may seemingly come from nowhere and last for long periods of time, therefore interfering with daily activities and various life circumstances.
In contrast, Panic Disorders are characterised by the random occurrence of panic attacks that have no obvious connection with events that are co-occurring in the person’s present experience. This means that panic attacks could occur at any time, even when someone is casually enjoying a meal. Of course, panic attacks could also be brought on by a particular trigger in the environment, such as a much-feared object or situation. Some individuals have reported that panic attacks feel frighteningly similar to a heart attack, especially with the rapid increase in heart palpitations, and the accompanying shortness of breath. Other symptoms also include trembling, sweating, and feelings of being out of control. With these panic attacks bringing on sudden periods of intense fear and anxiety, it can be exceptionally terrifying when these attacks reach their peak within mere minutes. However, a notable difference between a panic disorder and GAD is that an individual diagnosed with panic disorder is usually free of anxiety in between panic attacks.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a disorder marked by patterns of persistent and unwanted thoughts and behaviours. Obsessions are recurrent thoughts, urges or mental images that cause anxiety. On the other hand, compulsions are the repetitive behaviours that a person feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought or image. One common example often exhibited in films is where an individual has an obsessive fear of germs. This person may avoid shaking hands with strangers, avoid using public restrooms or feel the urge to wash their hands way too frequently. However, OCD isn’t purely limited to feelings of anxiety due to germs. OCD can manifest in other ways as well, such as wanting things to be symmetrical or in perfect order, repeatedly checking on things (“Did I leave my stove on?”), or the compulsive counting of objects or possessions. While everyone double-checks their things and has their own habits, people with OCD generally cannot control their thoughts and behaviours, even if they are recognised to be rather excessive. They can spend at least 1 hour a day on these thoughts and behaviours, and will only feel the much-needed brief sense of relief from their anxiety when they perform their rituals. As such, OCD can be exceptionally debilitating to one’s mental health.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Persons with Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD, experience high levels of anxiety and fear under particular or all social situations, depending on the severity of their condition. They are often afraid of being subjected to judgement, humiliation or rejection in public, causing them to feel embarrassed. As such, individuals with SAD may feel extra self-conscious and stressed out, and try to avoid social situations where they might be placed at the centre of attention.
A phobia involves a pathological fear of a specific object or a situation. This means that one may experience intense anxiety upon encountering their fears and will take active steps to avoid the feared object. Phobias may centre on heights(acrophobia), birds (ornithophobia), crowds and open spaces(agoraphobia), and many others. People with agoraphobia, in particular, may struggle to be themselves in public spaces, for they think that it would be difficult to leave in the event they have panic-like reactions or other embarrassing symptoms. In severe cases, agoraphobia can cause one to be housebound.
In Singapore alone, 10% of the population is plagued by anxiety disorders – one of which includes Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD for short. And on a global scale, approximately 4.5% of the world’s population – 273 million people – are estimated to experience anxiety disorders as of 2010. Commonly misunderstood to be merely an over-exaggerated form of shyness, Social Anxiety Disorder is much more than that. Individuals with SAD experience symptoms of anxiety or fear under particular or all social situations, depending on the severity of their condition. For some, even doing the simplest day-to-day activities in front of others can cause extreme worry of being judged, humiliated or rejected. However, some research has also suggested that SAD may be especially manifested in individuals that have ongoing medical, physical conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, obesity, facial or bodily disfigurement (including amputees), and any other sort of conditions that may cause one to look different from the norm.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
When people with Social Anxiety Disorder are surrounded by others or have to carry out a particular action around them, they may:
Feel nauseous, experience an increase in heart rate, tremble, blush or sweat profusely.
Be unable to make eye contact with others, move and act rigidly, or speak in an overly soft tone.
Feel extremely self-conscious, as though others are judging their every move.
Easily feel awkward, embarrassed and stressed out in social situations.
Find it extremely difficult to be themselves around others, especially strangers.
Have anxious thoughts such as, “I’m sure they won’t want to talk to me again,” or “Do I look plain stupid right now?”
Apologise excessively, even when there is nothing to apologise for.
Avoid conversations, such as by using their mobile devices or plugging in their headphones.
Avoiding situations where one might be placed at the centre of attention.
The list of symptoms above is not exhaustive, but we need to recognise that they may cause extreme distress to these individuals. For them, it can be tremendously helpful and relieving for them to seek treatment for their condition, more specifically through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a well-known form of therapy in the mental health profession. Considered to be a form of short-term therapy, CBT is usually delivered in a time-limited manner, often over the course of 8 to 12 sessions (although this may vary from person to person). Once the symptoms are reduced and the individual is well-equipped with the necessary skills to cope with anxiety triggers or social situations in general, treatment can be finalised. As it is not possible to change or alter emotions directly, CBT aims to tackle any maladaptive, limiting thoughts and behaviours that fuel or contribute towards agonising emotions. This, therefore, lowers the extent of anxiety that one goes through and instead, developing a sense of self-efficacy.
First off, CBT encourages individuals to open up and to be truthful regarding their automatic, instinctive (negative) thoughts so that they can work hand-in-hand with therapists to analyse the logic behind them. During the sessions, therapists will work to identify the assumptions (and their validity) that these people hold, which might be causing unnecessary anxiety or fear. Proper reasoning and clearing up of assumptions can be done by asking clients to do some self-assessment and to provide possible reasons as to why they maintain such assumptions. By doing so, therapists can then assess the situation and present evidence contrary to their beliefs.
Another aspect of CBT includes ‘Decatastrophising’. One common thinking pattern found in people who suffer from anxiety issues is ‘Catastrophising’, which is the act of imagining the worst-case scenario and magnifying the bad in any given situation. CBT helps to counter such a mindset by helping these individuals prepare for the feared consequences, as well as to cope with their unhealthy ways of thinking. For example, therapists and clients will go through certain ‘Challenge Questions’, such as:
“Has anything this bad ever happened before? How likely is it to happen now?”
“What makes you confident that your feared outcome will actually come true?”
“What is the best outcome that can happen in this situation?”
These are just a few examples of ‘Challenge Questions’, but they can certainly be beneficial in helping to ease feelings of anxiousness and to calm the individual. In some way, this can also decrease an individual’s inclination to avoid seemingly triggering social situations.
Tying in with ‘Decatastrophising’, another technique introduced during CBT is ‘Reattribution’. ‘Reattribution’ is a method which challenges the negative assumptions held by the individual by considering the possible alternative causes of events. This is particularly advantageous for people who, in most situations, perceive themselves to be the cause of problem events. For example, this can mean having a discussion on the evidence which proves that the individual is/is not the cause of the problem. Eventually, this will help to tackle ‘Automatic Negative Thoughts’, excessive self-blame and worry.
Of course, in order for the treatment process to be carried out more effectively, some therapists do assign “homework” to their clients. This is to say that clients are encouraged to apply CBT principles in between sessions, and are tasked to self-monitor and focus on implementing tips and processes when dealing with actual situations. By monitoring their emotions and making a conscious effort to calm themselves through methods discussed during sessions, these individuals will eventually develop the much-needed skillsets to cope with emotionally-draining social environments.
A combination of cognitive and behavioural therapeutic approaches, CBT has been proven to be an extremely effective treatment method for anxiety disorders, including SAD. In fact, the skills you learn in CBT are practical and highly applicable, and hence can be incorporated into everyday life to help you cope with future stresses more effectively. As such, if you or a loved one is struggling with SAD, do seek treatment as it will ultimately benefit you in the best way possible.
Being in the rat race can be exhausting, especially when we feel the need to constantly measure up. With the majority of us being brought up in a competitive culture, we tend to compare and be compared against others in terms of our achievements and levels of success. In some way or another, there is also a certain mindset that we should feel a certain level of shame or guilt if we are not as high performing (i.e. productive) as we should be. However, we failed to recognise that our productivity is not all there is to determine our self-worth. We cannot measure our own self- worth or self-value based on what we can or have achieved. Our unique qualities, as well as our intrinsic values, are all factors that contribute to what makes us truly ourselves. We need to focus less on external yardsticks and appreciate our inner qualities. Falling into the misguided notion of equating our state of busyness or productivity to our self-worth will lead to unnecessary stress and other health-related issues – both mentally and physically.
People who tend to beat themselves up for the various things that they were unable to complete rather than acknowledging what they have actually accomplished will experience low levels of self-worth. In fact, for these individuals, the amount of praise they give themselves is much lower than the amount of self-blame when they fail to get things done. Surely, a common measurement of productivity is the number of materialistic accomplishments. But it is also a common misunderstanding that busyness is a reflection of productivity. The misconception is that when a person is ‘too free’, he is being unproductive.
Productivity, unlike what most would expect, isn’t about getting as much done as you can and checking off every task on your to-do list. Productivity isn’t just about producing more. Instead, it is about focusing and spending time on the right things. There is a difference between spending your precious time and energy on a multitude of tasks that aren’t nearly as important, as compared to accomplishing a few things that matter the most to you. Our point is – try doing some soul-searching, and understand what you truly value or what are the things that define you. This will help you to refocus your time and energy on what you actually want to accomplish at work and in your personal time. If you treasure familial relationships more than work, then allocating more time towards family bonding will seemingly be more productive, and time well-spent. Redirecting your energy towards what you value most is what ultimately contributes to your self-worth as by doing so, we focus more on our intrinsic self.
We need to recognise that self-worth is the opinion we have about ourselves and the value we placed on ourselves. Under most circumstances, we can safely say that our productivity is not equivalent to our self-worth. Firstly, it is of utmost importance that we stop comparing ourselves to others. Although easier said than done, we need to come to terms with the fact that people are bound to walk down different paths. What is important to them may not matter even the slightest bit to you. Similarly, what they have achieved shouldn’t automatically become your personal goal just to match up to them. The more we compare ourselves to others’ achievements, the less satisfied we will be with ourselves and the lower our self-esteem becomes. Needless to say, this becomes totally self-defeating.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the common saying that we should always “focus on the process, not the outcome, and you will enjoy great success”? In light of this, the only being we should be comparing ourselves to is our past self. Are you doing better than before? Are you allocating time for self-improvement and self-appreciation?
This leads us to our next point – we need to cut down on excessive self-criticism and self-blame. Instead, embrace and accept our flaws. As humans, we are all inherently flawed. However, no one should have to believe that he or she is less worthy, inadequate or inferior due to his or her flaws. Viewing your weaknesses from such an angle will only cause your self-confidence to plummet. Instead, think about how you can change your bad habits, if these were your flaws for example, and improve on yourself. Getting yourself on the road to becoming a better version of yourself will prove to be more effective in raising your self-worth than by using productivity or the number of tasks you got done as a mode of measurement.
As mentioned, we all have our own unique qualities that distinguish us from others. It is important that we recognise and appreciate them, for they make us one of a kind. If you ever feel down in the dumps, with feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy, it helps to remind yourself that you are more than that. Grab a piece of paper and list down your positive traits and things that you appreciate about yourself. Doing some inner-search and writing down words of affirmation can definitely lift your spirits and help you regain your self-esteem.
With that being said, some may still find it tough to detach themselves from counting on productivity-based self-worth. After all, it may have become a habit, having been brought up with such a mindset. However, we need to note that this becomes a problem if it causes us to succumb to unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety, especially if we overload ourselves with too much work and aspirations in an attempt to boost our self-worth. If you find yourself overwhelmed and unable to cope, we hope you’ll seek help from professionals for the sake of your mental wellbeing in the long run. Do reach out to us whenever deemed necessary.
At its most elemental level, people avoid the risk of failure for one simple reason – it hurts. Every single person has experienced failure. If you were to interpret failure by its definition in the dictionary, “the neglect or omission of expected or required action”, wouldn’t you, as a child, have stumbled along the way to achieving those long strident steps you take when strutting along the sidewalk? Yet, nobody feels ashamed of failing to learn to walk as a toddler. Why’s that? You could say that no-one in the right mind would expect that of a human child – we aren’t deer, or gazelles that need to shake off the afterbirth and walk – or risk predation. Our success as a species which put us at the top of the food chain negates that need. Fear is a function of the amygdala, yet failure isn’t. There’s a distinction here that we need to be mindful of. If you’re a parent or have access to YouTube, you’ve probably noticed that there’s an innocence in children that can be quite uplifting to watch, as they try multiple times to succeed at a simple task. They don’t puff their cheeks out and sigh in despair, or bury their heads in their hands. At most, they demonstrate frustration.
Shame is learned behaviour that children integrate into their developing moralities, either from being taught or through observation. Studies done on athletes have shown that perceived parental pressure (or pressure from authority figures) have deleterious effects on how sportspeople experience and interpret failure. Simply put, the fear of failure is a construct of how societies function. For some people, the avoidance of shame that failure brings weighs too heavily on them, and that is the crippling fear of failure. Dr Guy Finch puts this rather more succinctly: “fear of failure is essentially a fear of shame”. How then, do we begin to become more self-aware in the face of these deeply ingrained avoidance mechanisms to start building our best selves?
After all, overcoming fear of failure is all about reversing negative thought patterns, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is designed to help you identify the underlying belief that causes a negative automatic thought (which in turn guides the feelings that come with it).
With the help of a qualified mental health professional, which can be anyone from a trained psychologist, psychotherapist or even psychiatrist, you can be empowered to break the circuit of the pervasive vicious cycle of negativity that prevents the unfettering of fear of failure’s heavy chains.
For instance, think of each deeply held criticism that you can’t let go of as a block in a Jenga game with your friends and the tower represents your thought life as a whole. Even though you’ve suffered through failure after failure, you can’t seem to jettison them from your psyche. Can you imagine a game of Jenga that doesn’t end in peals of laughter? It seems that some re-evaluation is needed to turn the way you handle each soul-sucking gut-punching failure from the darkness of your room. The grip of negativity steadying your trembling hand, an extension of your mind, putting each block up on autopilot because you believe you are not good enough. Instead, we suggest turning the lights on, invite someone you trust into your sanctum of despair, to play the game of Jenga with you. As you ease into their presence, you’ll begin to notice that the tower doesn’t look so intimidating anymore. It’s no longer just a congealed mess of all your shortcomings and toxic thinking, but a simpler thing that can be deconstructed. If each block represents a negative conviction you have about yourself that is too painful to touch, reach for the piece that looks more well-shorn and polished (which represents a perceived positive character trait or accomplishment that you hold dear). Put it back on top of your tower. It is yours, isn’t it? Or perhaps let your confidant handle that splintery block.
Of course, we all know that Jenga isn’t all laughter and grand gestures. There’s physical tension and the cogitation of making the right choice so the tower doesn’t crumble prematurely. Maybe you aren’t too good at Jenga. That’s fine. But if you start thinking of this special game of Jenga as a collaborative effort instead of a competitive one, you’ll start getting the picture. Who would you like to invite to collaboratively play a game of Jenga?
Sagar, S and Stoeber, J. Perfectionism, Fear of Failure, and Affective Responses to Success and Failure: The Central Role of Fear of Experiencing Shame and Embarrassment. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2009, 31, pp 602-627.