Sometimes, anxiety has a clear trigger: you have a big presentation at work, you’re going through a difficult stage in your relationship, a loved one has a health issue, or you’re about to embark on a major life change. However, anxiety may also seem to appear out of the blue. Maybe you’re doing pretty well in life; you have a nice job, you’re financially stable, you have a fulfilling relationship, and a circle of friends you love and trust.
And yet, even though you should be happy, there’s a looming sense of panic on the back of your mind. You feel on edge, as if disaster is about to strike. When you get a call from your parents, you assume that they have bad news. You constantly worry that something will go wrong, but you can’t tell exactly what. Your mind is racing, you can’t relax. You may even experience physical symptoms such as headaches, sweaty palms, stomach aches, and difficulty sleeping.
If you recognise yourself in this description, you may ask yourself: Why do I feel anxious for no reason? How do I stop feeling anxious?
As confusing as it might feel to experience unexplained anxiety, the reality is that there is always a reason for it – even though it may not be immediately obvious. Identifying that reason and the thinking patterns behind it is the first step towards escaping the endless cycle of worry.
Although everything in your life is going well and anxiety doesn’t seem to have a reason, there always is a reason buried deep enough. Potential causes for unexplained anxiety include:
Unresolved issues in the past. Sometimes, we’re not ready to face issues when we’re going through a challenging time. But when things settle down, and we’re doing well, the brain is ready to face those unresolved issues (even if they’re rooted in childhood), and we feel as if we’re being threatened in the present.
Lack of emotional support in childhood. If you were emotionally neglected as a child and you grew up in a non-supportive household, you are more likely to experience anxiety as an adult.
Negative examples from parents. Many behaviours and thinking patterns are inherited from parents. For example, if one of your parents worried excessively and did not know how to cope with stress, you may unconsciously mimic this behaviour.
Lack of emotional security. People who grow up lacking emotional security are more likely to have anxiety. For example, if your family moved around a lot, your parents had a divorce, and you generally did not feel safe, welcome and supported at home, you could be more prone to anxious thoughts.
Feeling trapped/lack of direction in life. If your current life situation doesn’t match your life goals, you are trapped doing a job you don’t enjoy just because it offers financial stability, or you still live in your home town because moving didn’t work out, you may feel that you lack a sense of direction in life and that could cause anxiety.
You have an existing mental health condition. In this case, you will need treatment for the condition as a whole, not just for the symptom.
If you are going through a stressful period, anxiety is a normal response. Even when things are going well, it’s normal to have the occasional negative thought (in fact, one study found that up to 80% of the thoughts we have on a given day are negative). However, it’s important to see them for what they really are: fleeting thoughts, not facts. When excessive worries take over your life, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, you have to take action before symptoms get worse.
Here are some signs that could indicate that your anxiety needs treatment:
Your anxiety lasts for more than six months
You have difficulty concentrating
You have trouble sleeping
You feel restless and irritable, as if you are always on edge
You have physical symptoms of anxiety (sore muscles, stomach aches, headaches, sweaty palms).
You’re feeling a sense of impending doom even if things are going well in your life.
Seeking professional help is the first step in identifying the root of the problem. Contrary to common belief, going to therapy doesn’t mean that you will immediately be prescribed anxiety medication. While medication can sometimes be part of the treatment, your therapist will first explore the nature of your problem by talking to you and then suggest some strategies to stop anxious thoughts in their tracks. One of the most important strategies involves identifying anxious thoughts when they appear, acknowledging that they are not grounded in reality and that they are merely subjective opinions. More often than not, the simple act of “calling out” a negative thought is enough to let go of it.
Your therapist may also recommend other strategies, such as:
Journaling. Writing down your thoughts can help you get better at identifying your emotions and unhelpful thinking patterns.
Mindfulness and meditation. Practiced regularly, meditation can help you relax, reduce stress, and tune out anxious thoughts.
Track your moods. Quite often, anxiety is linked to certain people or places that we’re not aware of. Tracking your moods and writing down when and where you feel overwhelmed can give you an idea of where it could be stemming from so that you can discuss this with your therapist. For example, if you notice that you experience anxious thoughts at work or after talking to your parents, you have a starting point.
Find healthy coping strategies to distract yourself from negative thoughts. Things like gardening, playing with your pets, reading a book, and going for a run can help you get better at coping. However, you should avoid short-term coping mechanisms like smoking, alcohol, or impulse shopping.
If you feel overwhelmed by worries, you needn’t go through this alone. Therapies like CBT are particularly effective at treating anxiety and, with every session, you will learn how to control harmful thought patterns and improve your wellbeing.