Blog 17: Anxiety Part Two

Written by Jim Sheehy

This blog continues our conversation around anxiety we began in blog 8.

I am asked if anxiety can be genetic.  Certainly, but like any condition, you can work and learn to manage it.  There’s usually a ‘worrier’ in every family, the one who overthinks and imagines the worst.  Almost a lifestyle choice where the person has a grid through which s/he sifts every piece of experience and information.  There is no harm in this as long as worry doesn’t develop into severe anxiety over a long period.  

We all worry, it’s part of loving and caring about somebody or something.  Much of it is genuine concern and risk-assessment.  Only when you worry about worrying all the time or you worry that you’re not worrying; then it becomes your default position and wears you down.


Another question that someone asked:

Jim, people with anxiety often talk about the voices or thoughts in their heads running continuously, night and day, and they want to relax and take a break.  What do they do?

Well. anxiety happens when thoughts start racing; these anxious thoughts have babies, and endless circles of worry become part of daily life, and then affect sleep.

These negative thoughts get stronger and our ability to cope weakens: It’s all too much   …. I can’t handle this anymore … I’m out of control … I’m going mad …  I am not safe  …. I am afraid I will harm those I love.

Anxiety can focus on issues around safety, control and responsibility:

Thoughts around safety: I am helpless and hopeless.  Control: I can’t handle all this; I’m trapped and stuck.  Responsible: if my child gets hurt, I am responsible.

Think of a Mum with her first baby, and little or no support.  Huge change in her life which will test how mentally and emotionally strong she is. 

These anxious voices in our heads provoke very strong negative feelings e.g. I feel guilty, I feel ashamed.

We know rationally that we want to get to a place where these inner thoughts and voices change and become positive, that managing means I do the best I can for myself and those I love …  that there comes a time when I trust another and let them free.

What often blocks us in making this changes what I call the tyranny of the must, should, can’t and ought to.  These are like slave-masters that crack the whip and ensures that my best is never good enough.  Here are examples: I must be thin, I should be a better Mum, I can’t walk without falling for an elderly or disabled person, I ought to be like my sister (the scourge of being compared to another).  These are like mini-dictators in your head and they can become ruthless.  Sometimes, these voices in our heads are planted carelessly when we’re young by parents, teachers or anybody we respect and whose love and affirmation we desire.  Even teenagers, online or in real life, can swallow the ‘peer expectation’ of who they ought or must be and try to become an image that can never be realised.


Then, with a bit of humour, see if you fall victim to these anxiety-postures in approaching issues:

Catastrophising which simply means everything bad that could happen is magnified.  Teenagers are very good at this: Mum, you’ve embarrassed me in front of friends.  My life is over.’  Or ‘I’m a failure in every possible way if I don’t get enough Leaving Cert points’.

Fortune telling when we magically predict the future  - ‘my teenage girl will definitely get into trouble going out with him’;  or ‘If I take that job, I’ll disappoint my bosses.’

Mind reading: When I went for interviews, I used to imagine -  ‘They’ll make their minds up when they see the crutch’.  The real truth is that people are too interested in themselves to worry about you or me.

Many people waste use energy regretting or fantasising  on what might have been or might still happen and live in the Land of What if: What if I’d travelled or studied when I was young; or ‘What if I get out of this house, everything will be better.’

So, how to manage anxiety:

First check with somebody you really trust if your concern is real or exaggerated.  For a student, has s/h actually the ability and determination to achieve those results?  For a Mum, has my 18 year old demonstrated he can say a clear ‘yes or no’ at home and in the community as she sees him depart for ‘that music festival’.

Prayer – put it in the hands of God or a wisdom figure who has died but resides in your mind and heart every day.

Talk to someone – get it out there. If you’re the listener, let the person tell their story … ask them what they need … talk in short, simple sentences … help with physical symptoms e.g. focus on breathing … grounding / distraction strategies … Exercise … Visualisation … Positive self-talk …Don’t minimise their experience … encourage creative expression … blend in a bit of humour … just being with an anamchara (soulfriend) is sufficient.

Design and make your own container or worry box.  When intrusive thoughts hop into your head during the day, write the worry on a piece of paper, put it into your container and promise to open the worry-box during the 30 minute ‘worry and problem-solving’ time you select e.g. 8.30 pm.  You’re now in charge.  When you actually spill out the pieces of paper at 8.30, you actually see very quickly  if they are real or imagined worries. 

Choose good coping strategies rather than harmful ones.  When we worry, we seek out a strategy that will soothe us.  So instead of a drug, alcohol or cutting, choose a positive coping strategy e.g. Mindfulness, Exercise, listening to music, walking with nature.

Positive self-talk: Imagine a courtroom in your head with a judge, prosecutor and defence lawyer.   You bring to the courtroom whatever negative thought or belief you have about yourself e.g. I am helpless.  The prosecutor is going to argue ‘Yes, I am helpless’ and the defence lawyer will argue that ‘I am capable’.  When both have argued the pros and cons, the judge issues a verdict. 

Example relevant with me. I am invited to present at different schools.  I feel anxious about being capable of doing the job.  One part of me believes I can do a really good fist of this job but my tummy is queasy. A negative voice, the prosecutor is saying strongly: I am disabled, not dependable, will let people down.  The judge listens attentive to this argument.  Then, I allow the defence lawyer the space to speak the evidence for saying ‘I am capable’: I have, over the 22 years I have MS, a 95 per cent attendance and punctuality rate; I am highly professional and rigorous in self-evaluation.  The Judge’s doesn’t take long to make his decision: Absolutely go for the job and be proud of yourself.  As soon as the Judge decides, my mood brightens.

What about chronic anxiety with symptoms such as OCD, bedwetting, sleeplessness, mood all over the place, psychosis, phobias, isolation.   This level of anxiety requires a therapist as the source is usually trauma based: tragic death or sudden separation, extreme pressure over expectations, body-image, peer pressure, loneliness, post-natal depression with accompanying anxiety,  ‘I’m going to harm my baby’.

And finally, find a good GP who will listen to an help you decide if medication is needed.  I always say to clients that medication is a crutch which is there when and only when needed.  Sadly, many people choose medication as a first rather than last resort.


Presentations on the 4 zones are also available on video and blog through the website – see

If you enjoy the material, please get the word out there among those you care for.  You can contact me with comment or suggestion via Facebook at Jim Sheehy Therapy and on Twitter @jimsheehy2017

Take care,

Clarifying Disclaimer:  While the material I am presenting is well-researched and suitable for the general population, I believe each person’s issues and needs are unique.  I encourage you to seek medical and/or therapeutic support if you struggle with an issue or condition that negatively and seriously impacts your life.





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Jim Sheehy M.Ed. MIACP
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