We all need to experience some degree of anxiety at times – it would be unnatural not to feel any of its symptoms, such as racing pulse, dry mouth, sweatiness and shallow breathing, just before a big speech or exam, for instance – as it helps get us motivated to act. But excessive anxiety causes problems. Excessive anxiety may develop gradually, starting, perhaps, with loneliness after the loss of a loved one; being too shy to make new friends when moving somewhere new; experiencing unwelcome life changes because of chronic illness and pain; or feeling loaded down with too much responsibility – all cases of unmet emotional needs.

Why do we get anxiety?

When people worry excessively, it is in essence because important emotional needs, such as for safety, connection or status, are not being met. That’s why the human givens approach, which focuses on helping people in distress find healthy ways to meet their emotional needs, is so effective.

For some people, anxiety can develop suddenly, after they are caught up in some tragic disaster, such as a fire or a crash, or are the victims of violence, and their lives become ruled by fear. (This is known as post-traumatic stress.) Anxiety may also take the form of obsessions, compulsions, phobias or a nagging feeling of foreboding – all of which are attempts to ward off a sense of threat.

Yet, as we know, some people face such circumstances without becoming overly anxious, while others end up almost crippled by anxiety. How we explain the negative events that happen to us has a considerable bearing on whether we are likely to suffer from excessive anxiety. Three particular types of thinking are especially connected with its development and its close partner, depression: how personally people take events (they think everything is their fault or that they didn’t get the job because they weren’t good enough, rather than because the competition was particularly stiff); how pervasive they think the effects will be (if they lose their job, they think everything in their world is going wrong, even though their relationship is still strong and they have their health, good friends, etc); and how permanent (they will never get another job, partner, dream house like that one, etc).

People who suffer badly from anxiety also tend to have a lot of negative thoughts running through their minds that they don’t even notice (“I’ll never cope”; “it’s going to be awful”; “no one likes me”) and commonly catastrophise (“I’m going to be late. My boss will sack me!”) Changing negative self-talk and challenging catastrophic thinking help lower stress levels.

What other causes are there?

Another major cause of troublesome anxiety is negative over-imagination. Anxious people tend to spend a lot of time worrying “What if?”, coming up with a whole variety of dreadful outcomes for themselves or their loved ones. This keeps them in a constant state of high emotional arousal and can take the extreme forms of phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Learning to use the imagination positively – by calmly rehearsing mentally tried and tested techniques (such as deep breathing and distracting thoughts) for dealing with feared or worrisome situations – is very effective. Calming ourselves down, when anxious, is extremely important because high emotional arousal makes us stupid. We literally can’t think straight and that makes the situation worse.

How can Human Givens help?

Human givens practitioners can show people how to relax, so that they can bring their own arousal and stress levels down, and how to use their imaginations positively, to rehearse successful outcomes instead of bad ones. They can also help people overcome phobias, panic attacks and traumatic memories quickly and painlessly. And, very importantly, they will encourage people to find ways to reduce their stress and also focus outwards on fulfilling activities (maybe involving the wellbeing of others as well as themselves) – excellent ways of getting their own needs met.