Got Anxiety? Charting a route for better managing your disorder
Robert Frost wrote in his famous Poem, The Road Not Taken, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Making a decision to do something new and unknown is exactly the professional advice I give to people I see at the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry.
Individuals who experience anxiety are regularly faced with needing to make decisions to behave in one particular way or another, with little hope for a good outcome, due to the enormous amount of doubt they feel when reviewing their choices.
Someone with Panic Disorder may need to choose between driving to the store alone, or asking a friend to accompany him or her, just in case he or she has a panic attack in the car or while shopping.
Individuals who experience anxiety are “what if” thinkers, who behave in a “just in case” manner. They also tend to overestimate the occurrence negative outcomes, overemphasize the severity of these outcomes, and underestimate their ability to effectively handle challenging outcomes — thus the need to discover a mistake-free solution, directed at preventing horrible outcomes from occurring.
This need to discover the perfect solution is similar to Robert Frost’s reference to roads that fork in a wood. When needing to choose between the road that seems “more” or “less” traveled, a person may experience regret, second-guessing, and a deep belief that something irrevocable will be lost, no matter what decision is made, which often defaults to choosing the road typically traveled so often in the past.
That is a familiar road that provides a short-lived sense of “certainty,” yet results in feelings of exhaustion and the frequent need to engage in reassurance-seeking behaviors.
What needs to happen for you to get off the road to certainty, and onto a road that brings you closer to better managing your anxiety?
My recommendation is to change routes, and travel on a road called “tolerance,” while also spending more time being curious about your “worry process” and less time questioning what your worrisome thoughts “really” mean.
When you shift your attention from the content that frightens you, and instead focus on being curious about the trigger that initially triggered your worry, hope grows, and with hope comes a willingness to take on more acceptable risks directed at acquiring a stronger tolerance level for handling situations involving uncertainty.
To summarize, I offer the following strategies for better managing anxiety:
1. Stop focusing on the content of your anxiety, and attend to the real trigger for your anxious feelings: All types of anxiety disorders have a specific fear-related theme. The theme is attempting to hook you into a cycle of anxiety.
For example, a person who suffers from Social Anxiety is worried about negative evaluation from others when interacting in social situations.
Take the time to educate yourself about what really drives your anxiety; an intolerance for situations involving doubt and uncertainty.
2. Agree to learn skills that will help you become more tolerant and accepting of uncertainty: These skills have to do with learning to “think about how you think”, such that you can reshape your thinking patterns to operate on a more reasonable basis.
Once you learn to (a) lower your exaggerated predictions regarding your belief that something bad will happen; (b) recalibrate your estimates regarding catastrophic outcomes to a more likely probability; and (c) pump up your levels of self-efficacy, you’ll be halfway home.
3. Seek out as many opportunities as possible that will trigger your strongest fears in order to strengthen new skills and weaken avoidance patterns: The rest of your journey is directed by your willingness to engage in opportunities that will help you practice acquiring a better tolerance level to the feeling of uncertainty, while also providing the evidence you need to truly believe in your new way of thinking.
Creative behavioral exposures and response prevention exercises are key components. Making this a lifestyle choice will bring you even closer to your destination.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California and is co-executive director of the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry, with offices in Incline Village. He may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit anxietytreatment inclinevillage.com to learn more.
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