Chronic Anxiety: How to Find Root Causes

In this post, I’m going to explain some self-analysis exercises you can do to try to track down the root causes of your chronic anxiety. Adults dealing with this issue often find that they feel very fearful in many areas of life. There is often an underlying emotional tension that seems to be dogging them most of the time, making it impossible to relax even when their current circumstances are positive. And of course, this is the draining thing about fear: it is fueled by an endless stream of “what ifs.” Even when we aren’t having any actual problems, chronic anxiety makes us feel like all is not well. In fact, it’s not unusual for those with chronic anxiety to feel more anxious when there are no real problems for them to focus on. The longer life rolls along smoothly, the more nervous and tense an anxious person can feel as they interpret the calm in their life as an indication that a very bad storm of trouble is speeding towards them.

By the time anxiety becomes chronic or constant, it has usually lost a specific focus. Instead, your fears feel varied and scattered, easily triggered by many little things. If I were to ask you, “What it is you’re afraid of?” you’d probably feel like you need to make out a list, because your fears don’t seem focused on just one thing. But for some of you, even making a list would seem difficult because your fears feel very vague and broad and hard to pin down.

Now suppose you were to spill a glass of wine onto a carpet. The liquid hits the carpet at a specific point, but then it begins to seep outward, forming a large stain for you to clean up. When you look at the stain, you feel stressed, but you are far more concerned with the size of the puddle rather than where the wine first touched down. In the same way, adults dealing with chronic anxiety often become focused on the size and scope of their anxiety. They tend to focus on how vast their stress has become instead of focusing on how it began. Then they often try to reverse the very process of worrying by forcing themselves to repeat happy mantras that don’t really inspire them or by giving themselves moral lectures on what a bad thing it is to worry at all, because God finds it annoying.

Speaking of God, does He really consider worrying to be a sin? Is it true that God will tune you out, trip you up, or punish you in some other way if you can’t magically morph into a calm, optimistic fountain of faith? Many religions do portray God as being very intolerant of fretting humans. But it’s really quite bizarre that religions come to this conclusion about God when He is the One who intentionally made humans to be such fragile and fearful creatures. Telling a human not to worry is like telling them not to breathe: fear is an automatic response for humans. It’s programmed into our very beings to react with alarm and distress over anything that threatens us. And since we are such fragile little things, many things threaten us. Happily, God is a lot more reasonable than many religions make Him out to be. He certainly does not consider it a “sin” to worry, doubt and fear. He understands better than we do how instinctive these things are for humans. While God will certainly coach us in not worrying, He doesn’t really expect us to master this skill.

Too often people confuse God’s encouragement with His expectations, even though these are very different concepts. Whenever you find yourself stressing that you are falling short of God’s expectations, a good rule to remember is that God is very easy to succeed with. If you can’t see how you could succeed with Him in your current situation because you feel you simply don’t have the resources to do what you think He expects, then you need to be open to the idea that you are misunderstanding what He wants from you. The best response then is to ask God directly to help you understand how you can please Him in the midst of your current struggles. God always puts success well within our grasp, but we won’t have a chance at realizing this until we learn to listen for His Voice and get better acquainted with how He speaks to us (see Recognizing God’s Conviction (Charts)).

Fear Trees

So now that we understand that God is reasonable and not ridiculous in what He expects from His own creatures, let’s learn about how fears change over time. None of us are born with a vague sense of dread hanging over our heads. Fears always begin as logical responses to specific upsetting events. There might be multiple events, or there might be one big one. Either way, what happens over time is that our fears generalize, meaning that they become less specific and more broad. For example, a young girl sees her school chum get hit by a car when they are out riding bikes together. This is a shocking, terrifying experience which raises all kinds of concerns in the girl’s mind. If she doesn’t get help with processing her fears, she will grow more and more fearful over time. Her initial fears will be directly tied to her initial traumatic event, such as a fear of crossing roads, or a fear of riding bikes. But in time, these fears will expand and grow more complex. When the girl grows into an adult, we have a woman who is constantly feeling anxious in life that some terrible thing is about to happen to her. She is afraid of becoming emotionally bonded to anyone because of a fear that something terrible will happen to them. She feels very stressed whenever she is near moving cars. She feels very stressed whenever she sees young children playing near traffic. She is afraid of having kids because she’s certain something bad will happen to them. She’s afraid of other people having kids because she’s certain they are setting themselves up for heartbreak. She views the world as a dark, depressing, sad sort of place where senseless tragedy strikes without warning. Our woman can’t enjoy any of the foods she ate the day that her little friend was killed. She can’t enjoy her birthday because it is so close to the anniversary of the accident. She can’t watch movies or read books that include someone dying. To strangers, our woman comes across as nervous, anti-social, and pessimistic, so naturally they don’t want much to do with her. In an attempt to improve herself, our woman is trying to learn how to think happy thoughts and practice gratitude for what she has. The problem is that every happy thought triggers two sad ones, and every grateful thought triggers fears that she’ll suddenly lose whatever it is she’s trying to be grateful for. So it’s a mess, and to really help herself, our woman needs to trace her current web of fears back to their initial trigger point, which was the loss of her friend. She then needs to deal with that experience directly instead of spending all of her energy trying to suppress the symptoms of that initial stress.

To treat long-term chronic anxiety, you first need to recognize that the complex anxiety you’re dealing with today is the result of a few initial fears having had time to sprout branches and develop many new sub-fears that weren’t part of the initial fear package. In the picture above, the clusters of thin branches that appear at the end of thicker branches represent the fearful thoughts that swirl around in your mind today. If you take the time to list those thoughts out, you can then look for common themes. Those themes are like the thicker branches pictured above. Once you collect a list of main themes, you will have an easier time of identifying the main trunk that all of those themes sprouted from. The main trunk represents the initial life experiences that you found very upsetting–so much so, that you ended up forming several negative beliefs in an attempt to explain it.

It’s very helpful to understand the basic pattern that you’re looking for. All fears do this kind of spawning when they are left unresolved for long periods of time. In adults, chronic anxiety often reaches back to childhood events, which means your mind and/or soul has had many years to sprout new sub-fears off of each main fear branch. If you think back over your life, can you remember a time when you didn’t feel very anxious or fearful in your day to day life? If you feel like you were born afraid because you can’t remember a time when you didn’t feel like there was a cloud of worry hanging over you, then it’s likely you had some very upsetting experiences when you were very young which caused that main trunk to appear, along with its main negative belief branches.

In real life, we often undergo many upsetting experiences in life, and as a result we can end up with several different trunks. But your mind will also consolidate fears when it seems logical to do so by adding or strengthening belief branches on an existing trunk instead of creating a whole new one. For example, a boy who is bullied by his siblings at home forms the belief “I am inferior and that is why people feel I deserve to be hurt.” When he then goes to school and is bullied there by a new group of kids, he doesn’t form a whole new trunk. Instead, he interprets his school experience as confirmation that his existing belief about being inferior is correct. That belief branch grows thicker and stronger on his original trunk, with that trunk representing the general experience of being bullied.

Tracing Your Own Tree

When you want to start mapping out your own fear tree, it’s easiest to begin with the clusters of small twigs that represent your fearful thoughts. To do this, create an electronic note file that you can password protect for privacy. In the file, create a table with three columns. Label the first column THOUGHTS, and then take some time to write down a list of anxious thoughts that come to mind. Thoughts that repeat themselves often are going to be especially helpful so put an asterisk (*) next to those. Don’t limit yourself here, keep recording thoughts, one in each row of your table, until you run out. When Sara does this exercise, she comes up with the following anxious thoughts:

In cases of chronic anxiety, it’s normal to see a bunch of “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” thought patterns on your list. The more time fear trees have to grow, the more branches they sprout, and the more you end up with combinations of fears that make you feel boxed in to impossible corners. And of course it’s rather depressing at first to face your fears head on like this, especially when there are a lot of them. But don’t give up, because we’re just getting started.

Label the next column MAIN FEAR. Now work your way down the column, and try to summarize the main concept that you’re afraid of by completing the phrase “I’ll be___” or “I am ___.” Be as brief as possible here and try to fill in the blank with just one word when you can. Also, think broadly. If you’re afraid of getting hit by a car, you should write: “I’ll be injured.” Don’t focus on the specifics of how you’ll be injured, focus on the end result. If you’re afraid of being mocked, write “I’ll be embarrassed,” or “I’ll be rejected” or some other phrase that feels like a match. There will be many logical ways to sum up each of your thoughts, but you need to pick the one that feels like the closest match for you personally. Fears have different nuances to them. A fear of fire might focus on the flames, the smoke, or the heat. What is the specific negative word that comes to mind for you when you review each of your fearful thoughts? Here is what Sara comes up with for her second column:

As you look over Sara’s list, some of her summaries might not feel like a match to you. There are many possible ways to summarize each of Sara’s thoughts, because the same fearful thought can be fueled by many different fears. When Sara did her list, she was careful to choose summaries that felt right to her, even if they seemed a bit mismatched on paper. The emotions are the key here–you’re looking for a summary that feels right.

Now Sara tried to be brief, but sometimes she needed to use more words to clearly describe her feelings. Fine. The purpose in trying to be brief is to help yourself focus on the core issue.

It’s quite possible that a single anxious thought makes you think of two or three summarizing phrases, because the thought is linked to multiple core fears. When that is the case, stack your summarizing phrases in the same box in your second column. As we move on to the third column, you can deal with each summarizing phrase separately.

In our next column, we want to do one more summarizing exercise, only this time, try to be even broader in focus. Instead of writing phrases with the word “I”, simply write down the negative concept that is being referred to in each of your summarizing statements. For example, when Sara writes “I am a bad person” she’s really talking about having a lack of moral character. When she talks about being unable to provide for herself, she’s talking about having her basic needs unmet. As you fill out your third column, try to identify the general concept you’re referring to in each of your summarizing statements. Try to avoid direct references to yourself with words like I or me. Word your answers as if you are summarizing an issue that you see someone else dealing with. Here is what Sara comes up with:

The purpose of having two summary columns is to make the next step easier. Often describing your struggle or feelings in multiple ways helps you see them more accurately. For example, when Sara looks over her third column answers, she can see that she has a very low opinion of herself. She also has a strong expectation that her future will be very miserable. Notice her reaction to her boyfriend Joe having a glass of wine. Joe didn’t drink to excess, and he’s not an alcoholic right now, but Sara has already decided that he’s going to become one and that he’ll become abusive towards her. The question Sara needs to ask herself now is, “What past life experience has caused me to conclude that my future must be miserable?”

Once you’ve completed your third column, we’re ready to try and pinpoint root causes. Focusing just on your second and third column, go through each entry slowly and try to remember the first time you felt those emotions. For example, when Sara closes her eyes and dwells on the concept of having her basic needs go unmet, memories of her alcoholic father begin to surface. She remembers being a little girl and hearing her mom fretting about how they were going to pay their bills. She remembers being told, “Your father drank our money away so you’ll just have to go without for now.” She remembers school events coming up that required donations from parents and dreading the idea of asking her mom for money.

When Sara thinks about the concept of a volatile home life, more images of her father surface. Sara’s father often flew into violent rages when he was drunk: shouting, smashing things, and filling the house with terror.

When Sara thinks about the concept of having no personal value, memories surface of her father screaming abuse at her. “You’ll never go anywhere in life, you ugly cow. I’m not paying for a tutor, because that won’t fix anything. We have a stupid kid–that’s the real problem, and there is no solution for that.”

Label your fourth column WHO/WHAT. Then, write down the names of any people that come to mind as you ponder each of your entries in your second and third columns. If specific life experiences come to mind instead of or in addition to specific faces, briefly describe those experiences.

Sara is very surprised when she sees a clear theme emerging about her father. Until she did this exercise, she thought she was simply an anxious person and she felt like her worries were random and unrelated. But now she sees clear themes emerging, all of which are related to beliefs that she formed in response to her father’s actions.

As an adult, Sara feels rather miserable in her day to day life. She feels depressed, worried, and drained most days. But now that she has taken the time to identify root causes, she has a chance to start shifting some of her negative beliefs. Sara doesn’t need to keep reading books on how to think positively–what she needs is to deal with her response to her father. There are many valuable truths for Sara to grab hold of here. For starters, her father’s view of her was nothing more than his own opinion–an opinion that was heavily warped by his own unresolved pain. Up until now, Sara has been treating her father’s opinions like absolute truths. As a child, she didn’t feel like she had permission to disagree with her parents. But as an adult, Sara can understand that adults are often wrong about what they think, and that people often lash out at others when they are hurting internally. Sara can also learn about alcoholism and gain a better understanding for why her father likely drank in the first place. Having a more accurate view of her father’s brokenness will help her put his nasty words in perspective.

As a child, Sara depended on her parents to provide for her, so when they talked as if that wasn’t going to happen, of course she panicked. But as an adult, Sara is no longer dependent on her parents to provide for her. She has so many more options today than she had as a child, and listing out those options would be a helpful exercise in giving her mind some relief from fear.

Conclusion

Chronic anxiety can always be traced back to logical reactions to real life experiences that we found very upsetting at the time we initially lived through them. Once you start uncovering the true causes of your current anxiety, you will be able to respond to it more productively. Self-compassion is far more effective when we can specifically identify the fears and wounds that we need compassion for. Verbal venting is far more effective when we can talk about root causes instead of surface symptoms. Right now, Sara is just reacting negatively to her boyfriend’s glass of wine and acting like his occasional drinking is a terrible thing. But if she were able to tell Joe what’s really going on–that his drinking reminds her of her father and rakes up fears that she’ll once again be trapped in a home with an abusive man–then Joe might surprise her by offering to stop drinking alcohols altogether. Right now Joe just feels like Sara is trying to control his behavior to inappropriate degrees. Remember that different reactions are needed to respond appropriately to different motivations. Refusing to submit to controlling demands can be the appropriate, healthy response. But once Joe understands that Sara is really grappling with a fear of being hurt, and not just trying to dominate him, he can change his response accordingly.

Productive conversations and helpful solutions can start to flow after everyone understands what the real problem is. But until you get your own issues sorted out, you won’t be able to communicate them clearly to the people you’re trying to relate to. This is why it is so beneficial to take the time to do some self-analysis and give yourself a chance to get better acquainted with the complex person that you are.

For more help in dealing with root fears, see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.

This post was written in response to a request.

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