What is the anxiety formula?

Two of the most common questions my clients ask me are:

•Why do we get so anxious about seemingly innocuous things?

•Why do some people suffer from anxiety when others seem to take things in their stride?

There are, of course, a multitude of factors that make up the answers to these questions, including our temperament – we know that some people are born with a highly sensitive temperament, while others are much more thick-skinned and robust – our family dynamics, traumatic experiences we might have in childhood or adolescence, whether our parents were anxious and so served as 'models' for our anxiety...

But another, simpler way to understand why we can get so anxious about things like developing a serious illness, or spending time in enclosed spaces, is using the 'anxiety formula'. This simply means that high levels of anxiety are caused by a combination of how likely we think it is that a feared event will happen, plus the cost of that event to us. And this in turn is affected by how well we think we might cope if the feared event happened, plus whether we think anyone could help or rescue us.

This sounds fiendishly complicated, but it's really not – let me give you a concrete example:

If I am anxious about, say, having a panic attack in a shopping centre, the degree of my anxiety will depend on how likely I think that is to happen. If I think it's only 10% likely, I won't get very anxious on my drive to the shops; if I think it's 90% likely, I will be very anxious indeed. If I then think that I if I do have a panic attack, I will only be 5% embarrassed (perhaps because I can hide in the toilet until I feel calmer), my anxiety might come down a bit; if I think I will be 95% embarrassed (because everybody will see me panicking and think badly of me), my anxiety will go up, not down.

The next bit of the formula involves coping and rescue factors. So if I think to myself, 'Well, I might have a panic attack, but my therapist taught me how to use deep breathing to calm myself down, so I'm sure I could cope with it and eventually be OK,' (coping) my anxiety would ease off a bit. If I thought, 'Having a panic attack would be absolutely awful – I might faint and end up in hospital,' up goes my anxiety again. And finally, if I thought people would be kind and help me (rescue), I might feel slightly reassured; but if I imagined people might ignore me or even be unkind, I could feel very alone and even more anxious.

You can apply this anxiety formula to anything that's making you feel worried or afraid and it will always explain why that seems manageable in one situation but deeply uncomfortable in another. Crucially, this formula not only helps us understand why we get so anxious, but how to modify the unhelpful thinking that amplifies risk while making us underestimate our coping resources to deal with whatever life throws at us.

I strongly believe that no-one needs to struggle alone with their anxiety, so do get some help from me, another cognitive therapist or a charity like Anxiety UK in treating your problem – if you would like to book a session with me, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,