The answer to anxiety? Try telling yourself “I’m fine”. That’s it. JUST KIDDING! It’s obviously not that simple as anxiety and stress are often physiological and psychological responses that to events that occur in our lives.
From a physiological standpoint (i.e., difficulty breathing, sweaty palms, increased heart rate) it is difficult to control that as it’s automatic. When you are actively in the middle of a panic attack, no amount of thinking or talking your way through it helps. It requires your brain and body to regain a sense of safety and a control of their faculties. While being told to breathe is kind of annoying, it's actually really helpful. While you can work to reduce the time you are engaged in the attack, the psychological responses are things we can work on and work to better manage, prior to and after any attack occurs. When we breakdown, what happens is that an event occurs, and we bring with us all kinds of past experiences, beliefs, narratives, and stories with us. Depending on the stories that you carry (i.e. nothing ever works out for me”, “my life will be over if I do this” “I’m going to lose everything”, etc.) you may perceive an event in a certain fashion that then allows anxiety to show up, screaming silently at you that you are in danger. In your mind, the stressful and anxiety inducing event is perceived as real to you and you respond with more worry, stress and anxiety towards the unknown.
What lies beneath the anxiety
The stress and anxiety that show up seems like a vicious never ending cycle and it's unpredictable. I would simply ask you to consider that beneath all of these responses is fear. Sit with that for a moment. Beneath all of the thoughts and worries is fear. The question for you to answer and explore is” fear of what?” We are humans who have developed fear as a survival response. I think we can all agree that we like living and if there is a threat to our survival, we will understandably freak out. It goes back to caveman days that man needed fear to keep him alert and aware of the tigers in the jungle. Fear kicks into high gear, getting you to take action to stay alive. But, these days the fear, while real is often exacerbated in our mind, and there is nothing to do with that except stress out and have an anxiety attack. It’s one thing to fear losing your job but then when you add, fear of being a loser, fear of being homeless, fear of your spouse leaving you and your kids hating you, are you surprised that anxiety goes haywire?
So what I do?
The work to do (when you are in a calm state) is to explore what we are afraid of and to focus our attention on creating the tools to not only manage our physiological responses but our psychological responses as well. Is it fear of rejection? Fear of exclusion, Fear of failure? Fear of success? Fear of death? Part of acknowledging the fear is helping you to better challenge the thoughts and shine a light on how to reframe the thought. In session with clients, I do an exercise called “And then what?” The point of the exercise is to help clients work through the fear and arm them with the confidence to believe in their ability to navigate whatever will show up. So for example, it goes like this
Client: I’m having anxiety about this presentation I have to do
Me: What is making you anxious?
Client: What if I mess up
Me: OK…what if you mess up. Then what?
Client: People will think I’m stupid and incompetent
Me: Then what
Client: I’ll be embarrassed and I won’t get the promotion or even worse, I’ll get fired
Me: Then what
Client: If I get fired, I’ll lose my job and my house
Me: Then what
Client: I’ll be out on the street and I’ll lose everything I’ve worked for.
Me: Then what
Client: Then I’ll ask my family for help and start looking for a new job.
So this has clearly been simplified, but by allowing the client to go down the rabbit hole, to name what is scaring them and foster a sense of resilience within the client, the fear is processed and the client will either recognize that the worst case scenario is either ridiculous, or that they have the supports and resources to get through whatever shows up. And if they don’t have the tools and resources to deal with whatever shows, we work to get those things in place, so the fear is reduced. This might mean taking public speaking classes. This might mean doing some affirmation work to develop confidence in yourself. This might mean working on your presentation until you feel good about it, regardless of the outcome. This is not to say that the outcome won’t be scary, but rather it is not as life and death as previously thought. Within this exercise, you allow give yourself to tap into times when you have been successful or times when it hasn’t been as bad as you thought, or there was a silver lining to the bad event. Please note, that this discussion is focused on more of the day-to-day stressors, where many of your basic needs are being met. In cases of long-standing trauma, PTSD, or active situations where there is violence, or unmet basic needs, there are deeper issues which need work.
As you contemplate the things that make you anxious or stressed out, consider these tips when trying to dissect your anxiety.
1. Examine what you are afraid of.
2. Assess the fear and explore whether the danger is real or created by your imagination
3. Explore the layers around the fear. Is the worry related to yourself, your loved ones, complete strangers?
4. Play the “then what” game.
5. Identify moments when you have been successful around this particular area. What worked, what didn’t. Can you incorporate some techniques in this event.
6. Implement a plan to acquire the resources and support you need to be successful at the thing that you are worried about
7. Incorporate fun into your life. It’s hard to be anxious and stressed when engaged in an enjoyable activity. Of course, beware of your mind hijacking you and scaring you with guilt and fear. Recognize that fear is trying to keep you “focused” and simply tell it you’ll get back to it later.
8. Meditate. Meditation for 5-10 minutes a day invites the anxiety to show up and blab away. Your job is not to respond or react to it, but instead let it go wild. If anxiety sees that you are not rushing to act, it may just quiet down and allow you to better figure out what you need.
9. Pay attention to your beliefs about yourself. Do you see yourself negatively? Do you talk to yourself negatively. What can you say to yourself instead that is actually helpful. It doesn’t have to be positive; it just has to be helpful. “I am a loser” is not helpful. “I am doing the best that I can” is.
10. Finally work to remind yourself that these scary moments are temporary and that you are capable.
While anxiety is an area that needs constant exploration and supervision, it is possible to get a handle on it and live a life with less anxiety.
My name is Eddie and I am a mindfulness-based therapist in Bordentown, NJ who specializes in trauma, anxiety and Mom stress. I provide online counseling throughout the state of NJ and specifically in Mercer and Burlington County, NJ (Bordentown, Chesterfield, Robbinsville, Hamilton and Princeton). Find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.