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How Not to Double Down on Your Anxiety

anxious_woman_regret_the past_thinkingDo you ever get an anxious feeling . . .  followed by a fearful thought that something must be going wrong?

Then the thought that something is wrong makes you feel more intense anxiety . . .  which makes you believe the fearful thought even more?

Maybe you start repeating this thought to yourself, or elaborating the fearful scenario with additional fearful thoughts. Of course each one intensifies the anxiety, generating another fearful thought, and, in a instant you are spiraling into a dark hole of fearful thoughts and anxious feelings.

This is how we double down on our anxiety. Like a compulsive gambler trying recoup his losses, we keep betting “double or nothing” over and over again. Of course it never works — we just go deeper into the dark. Very stressful and depressing!

If you’re like me, you would like to put and end to this painful, enervating spiral of dread, and immunize yourself against it. Well, you can do it! Here’s how:

  1. Recognize that an unpleasant emotion doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you or with the world.
  2. Take a breath, and breathe into the feeling with a willingness to just feel it.
  3. Look at the thought you’re having about that feeling.
  4. Instead of believing this fearful thought or trying to block it, simply think, “Do I really have to believe this thought?”
  5. Now look at the thought again. This thought may be about a specific situation that you would not want to happen. That’s only a possibility – not a belief. The problem thought that you really want to examine here is the one that tells you that if this dreaded thing happens that you don’t want to happen, it means there is something wrong with you and/or with the world.
  6. Look at that thought. Do you have to believe it? Never! Breathe deeply and easily. Relax. No spiral.

For some people, it isn’t so easy to recognize that they don’t have to believe the fearful thought.

Keeping this in mind, practice the steps again, changing steps 4 & 5 just slightly. Notice how these different steps 4 & 5 enhance the inquiry:

  1. Recognize that an unpleasant emotion doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you or with the world.
  2. Take a breath, and breathe into the feeling with a willingness to just feel it.
  3. Look at the thought you’re having about the feeling.
  4. Instead of believing the fearful thought or trying to block it, simply think, “If I believe this fearful thought, I will feel more afraid. In fact, if anyone were to believe this fearful thought, they would feel afraid. So this proves that “I” work perfectly. There is nothing wrong with me. Having this feeling doesn’t mean there is something wrong with me, or with the world.”
  5. Breathe. Relax. Look around. Look at your mind, thinking, “I work perfectly, even if I am having a painful feeling, I’m perfectly OK, and I have a right to be kind and encouraging to myself.”

6. Look at this fresh thought of encouragement. Relax. No spiral.

FTM-People-friends-relaxing-deck-birdseye-view-overhead

Here’s an example of how quickly and easily you can dissolve a chronic anxious problem state by  inquiring into and challenging the thought process that creates it and keeps it going.

I had an adult client who spiraled into anxiety whenever she remembered a childhood scary dream. One night at about age 4, she “woke up” in the middle of her dream to find that a troll was sitting by her bed and a magic hat was sitting on her bedside table. She screamed and the troll and magic hat disappeared. Then she woke up (for real). For decades she had been haunted by the fear of being harmed by this troll.

I asked her to breathe and relax.

Then I pointed out to her that she was keeping this fear alive by the thoughts she was creating and believing. To illustrate, I listed a few:

  • You believe that trolls are bad. If something is new or unfamiliar, you believe it’s bad.
  • You believe the troll wanted to hurt you and that you were powerless to stop him.
  • You believe that sooner or latter it is going to happen – the troll is going to get you – and so you have suffered with this anxiety for decades.

These views gave her pause. Then I asked her to look at and directly challenge the thought that trolls are bad, asking herself, “Do you have to believe that?”

To help her arrive at disbelief, I asked her to consider a few possible scenarios:

  • You were a sleeping small child when you had that nightmare. If the troll had really wanted to hurt you he probably could have done that before you woke up.
  • The troll disappeared with the hat when you screamed. He didn’t try to muffle your scream and hurt you.
  • Maybe the troll had come to play with you. Maybe that’s what the magic hat was for!
  • Maybe the troll left when you screamed and never came back because he cared about you and didn’t want to upset you.

My client was able to accept this alternate interpretation of the “facts” and the anxiety left her. These interpretations just made much more sense! With a little calm examination and broadening of our perspective on “the facts” we can indeed immunize ourselves against imaginary fears – and all fears are imaginary! (Note: the flight or fight response is not a psychological fear)

If you practice with the steps above, I am sure you will discover you can quickly overcome the habit of spiraling into anxiety. Also, I am sure you will find that questioning your thoughts is a surprisingly enjoyable and liberating exercise. Challenging your thoughts sharpens your mind and energizes you. You quickly learn the different situations in which you have been allowing many ridiculous thoughts to rob you of your good nature. With the clarity that comes from recognizing these thoughts for what they are, humor arises.

As soon as you see how absurd the thoughts are, they leave you!

If you would like to experience an in-depth presentation of how you can develop your own sharpness of mind to defeat fearful imagining, consider this powerful video training, The Art & Skill of Therapeutic Inquiry . This program is suitable for laypeople as well as for therapists who can use it to earn CEUs. Upon completion, a Certificate of Completion from the Institute for Therapeutic Learning is awarded.

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