In order to make sense of our experiences the brain uses a mechanism of attributing a cause to an effect. It’s a sensible and logical system designed to let us know what is ok and what isn’t. We know from research (as well as the fact that it’s rather obvious) that structural, social and economic factors impact our wellbeing. When we are faced with injustice, isolation, marginalisation and inhospitable environments, we suffer emotionally, physically and psychologically. These causes of distress can often result in anxiety and depression which in turn can cause us to experience further isolation and marginalisation, sometimes with a big dollop of stigma on top! When it comes to working with anxiety, it is always important to identify the causes present in our lives that may be eliciting an anxious response, so that we can address or eliminate them. However, based on my own experience of anxiety caused by a clear stressor, the anxiety remained present long after the stressor had been dealt with, and this is where directly approaching the anxious state can be helpful. On this website when addressing the restoration of a balanced state, I am always referring to residual anxiety. This is the presence of the anxious state that stubbornly accompanies us when we are trying to get our lives back on track. I absolutely don’t believe in inoculating people to the causes of distress so that they can continue to endure undesirable situations, but I do believe that knowledge is power when it comes to facing challenges. The stronger we can be physically and psychologically, the better we are able to stand up to injustice, inequity, and the adversities that come our way.
When it comes to the anxious mind, the cause and effect process tends to get a bit indiscriminate. To make sense of the world and our experience of it, our brains generate associations between related objects, events, situations and how we experience them. For instance, if we eat something and later we feel unwell, it’s likely that we would attribute the cause to the food being off. If we are late to a meeting because we took a phone call when we were getting ready, we might attribute the lateness to the phone call. Mostly these attributions help us to navigate our way through life, learning from each one – eg, make sure food is fresh before eating it and don’t take phone calls when time is limited etc. In the case of ongoing anxiety, the mind can get very carried away with misattributing causes left right and centre. Mostly the mind is looking for causes of anxiety so that it can learn from them and avoid them in the future, only the trouble is, the anxious mind is our protective mind, and its job is to identify causes everywhere.
One person that I worked with very early on in my career was experiencing high levels of anxiety and regular panic attacks. When I went to see him he told me the history and his perception of how his anxiety had started. His perception was that he had been sitting drinking a cup of tea in his garden, when he felt an increase in his heart rate and a rush of adrenaline. He felt an overwhelming urge to get up and move away from the garden to a place of safety and didn’t like the feeling at all. He went into his house and calmed down, but each time he thought about either having another cup of tea, or a sit in his garden, he felt a little adrenaline in his system and took this as a warning that he shouldn’t.
This persons experience is not untypical. Because he didn’t know why he had felt the way he felt, his mind looked for a cause – tea, and garden. His mind then paired these two associated ‘causes’ together with the anxious state, and he saw them as being responsible (if somewhat puzzlingly to himself) for the anxiety he experienced. Although he was puzzled he went about avoiding tea (he thought it might have been the caffeine) and steering clear of his garden. He began to question things further when he found himself feeling panicky in the supermarket sometime later and when his mind told him that the cause must be ‘tea dust’ in the supermarket aisle he felt so awful he again went home to the safety of his sofa. His mind this time told him maybe it was the supermarket, as well as the tea. Supermarket was then added to the list of things to avoid, it was another ‘cause’.
When we started to talk about his life at the time of the original panic he experienced, we were able to establish that the business he was working for was struggling and he had been very worried at the time about being made redundant. As minds tend to do, his had been catastrophising and imagining the worst. He saw in his minds eye his house being repossessed, him and his family out on the street, homeless, penniless and hungry. In other words, he was worrying a lot, and his amygdala was responding to this worrying by generating a low-level fight or flight response. The day that he sat in the garden drinking his tea was his first day off in a long time, and instead of enjoying it, he spent the time convincing himself that when he went back to work the next day he would be told that he was no longer needed. This is what generated his high anxiety level that day, but his mind attributed the set of anxious feelings to an altogether more innocuous couple of culprits – the tea and the garden.
The true cause of this person’s anxiety response was his ongoing worry about his insecure situation in the workplace. That was the issue that needed to be addressed. A real and structural situation that was impacting his quality of life. The trouble is that once the fight or flight system switches on and the mind is looking for threats everywhere, the anxious state gets in the way of us thinking straight making it harder to deal with the real problem. A common road that we often go down at this point is to be diagnosed with stress, or an anxiety ‘disorder’ when really what may be needed is support to address the issue. It’s also true to acknowledge though, that often even when the issue that’s been causing the stress has been addressed, the anxious state remains, as mentioned previously, which is where knowledge of how the anxiety system works and can be influenced, becomes invaluable.
It makes sense that minds attribute cause to things in the environment, or behaviours and experiences, however, when anxious this system can’t always be relied upon and can lead to us avoiding perceived causes left right and centre. This is what contributes to anxious people narrowing down their lives by avoiding things.
Out of the loop leads us away from staying caught up in this type of false attribution by showing us exactly how the anxious state is generated and how it is perpetuated by our own response to it. Unless there is a real and obvious cause that needs to be addressed, or a genuine threat to our safety and well-being present in our environment, it’s safe to say that looking for causes feels depleting of our time and energy. Ongoing anxiety is mainly caused by our internal response to its presence, and once we learn to work with our internal system differently and anxiety subsides, we can see clearly that we don’t need to find constant causes to avoid feeling anxious.