- By Fraser Collins, PwC Business Development Manager and wellbeing advocate
More than six million people in the UK are thought to be currently suffering from some form of anxiety, and according to a recent report commissioned by the UK Government, the cost of mental and emotional illnesses to the UK economy is between £74bn and £99bn. The human cost is much greater.
Anxiety can take many forms, such as a constant underlying feeling of unease, an ongoing willingness for something to make us feel better, or it can be experienced as intense panic and impending doom.
When I do talks on anxiety and emotional wellbeing, I refer to the ‘anxiety scale’ which helps individuals do a bit of self-analysis. Let’s say this scale ranges from one to ten - with one being the blissful state enjoyed by a Tibetan monk in deep meditation, and ten being a panic/anxiety attack. The number is always going to fluctuate in our daily lives, but the main problem in the modern western world is that most of us sit at, say, between five and seven – but don’t acknowledge it as a problem because it is very much our habitual state and we therefore class it as ‘normal’.
Sitting higher up this scale not only affects things like our focus, productivity, our sleep and ultimately our happiness day-to-day, as our emotional brain (our amygdala) takes over our rational brain (our neocortex). But it also means that when very challenging life situations arise - such as a stressful workload, relationship problems, financial worries, health issues etc - then it is all too easy to be pushed further up that scale.
This is when anxiety greatly affects our everyday functioning and can result in that six/seven becoming a nine or ten, bringing with it the many more symptoms that high levels of anxiety cause. And so the vicious circle continues, until we learn how to stop it.
What is causing it?
As human beings, it is estimated that most of us have around 70,000 thoughts a day of which it is said around 90% are negative and repetitive (and we wonder why we’re in the state we’re in!). Let me now drop another bombshell – most thoughts are unnecessary! What do I mean by this? Well, all of us have a voice in our head, that little mind-made self or the ‘ego’, as it’s more commonly known spiritually.
All the negative repetitive thoughts this voice brings us have an energy form and it's therefore little wonder that anxiety can also drain us of physical energy. Many of the thoughts trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response system, an innate mammalian tool which is there to save us from real danger, flooding our bodies with stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, increasing our heart rate, shortening our breathing, producing sweat, distorting our thinking – preparing us to run like hell or to stick around and fight. The trouble is there is nothing to fight or run from and the same system can’t tell the difference between real danger and the perceived danger created by our minds (hence we can lie awake at night in a warm safe bed but be in the grip of anxiety).
So how can we fix this and lessen the number of thoughts?
One of the most transformational realisations on a mental and emotional level is to understand that you are not your thoughts… you are not the thinker.
This is something taught by Eckhart Tolle, author of the international bestseller The Power of Now.
What does this mean? Well, do an experiment: sit quietly for a couple of minutes and close your eyes. Notice how often thoughts creep in trying to pull you away from internal quiet. When you notice this then you realise you are not your thoughts but that you are actually the witness of your thoughts. Take a second to fully comprehend this – you are not your thoughts, you are the witness of your thoughts.
Recognising this in itself is a great first step forward, and by becoming aware of it you are moving from thinking to awareness, from the past/future to the present moment and then by continuing to simply ‘observe the thinker’, we reduce the number of negative thoughts we have.
Meditation is the new ‘fashionable’ spiritual practice, however, conforming to a twenty minute meditation routine in the morning, but allowing your mind to run away with itself the rest of the day is the same as a smoker giving up cigarettes for twenty minutes a day but chain smoking in between times. The practice has to be continuous until being aware of mental noise becomes second nature.
It all sounds very simple, and it is indeed simple – simple but not easy. You are potentially changing decades of habit when you try to quieten the ego and the ego is a very insecure, persuasive entity that carries a fear of annihilation and will therefore do it’s best to distract you from awakening. Once mastered though, along with other techniques such as severing the link between emotions and thought, then the effects are quite simply life-changing - not only for those who suffer from high levels of anxiety but for everyone, to help you become more resilient and to allow space for more joy to come in.
We live in a time where it is almost a necessity to be more spiritual, to control our minds and to be always conscious of our thoughts and the negative illusions they create. The human mind is a very powerful tool when used for us but used against us it can be very destructive and can have a detrimental effect on our emotional, mental and physical health.
We need to look internally to overcome anxiety or to help lead a more fulfilled life and I have seen the benefit many times first hand. As Michelangelo said; “the angel is already in the marble, all you have to do is chip away the marble”.
Please note: This blog should not be construed as providing medical or mental health advice. It is recommended to contact your doctor to determine whether anxiety may be exacerbated by any underlying medical conditions.
A version of this blog was first published on Thrive Global.