One of my clients with an anxiety disorder with whom I’ve worked for a few months has seen great improvements since we started. She has successfully overcome a few big phobias and her general level of anxiety has decreased dramatically. We are now at what I call the ‘maintenance’ stage of therapy, where after an intense few months of sharing concrete tools and showing a client how to use them successfully, she is now ready to use her own wings with the new tools she has, and see me whenever something majorly challenging comes up that she needs my help dealing with.
In our last session, we went over all the tools she’s learned and applied successfully and celebrated how far she has come. But near the end, she sounded nervous and said to me: “I know I’ve come a long way and I have some great tools I can use to outwit the ‘worry monster’, but I’m afraid of going back to where I was when I first came to see you. How do I make sure that I don’t slip back and continue to move forward in my recovery from anxiety?”
I wanted to share my answer to this question with you dear readers in the hopes that it will help you as well…
Esther’s recipe for conquering anxiety over the long-haul:
- 1. Face things head-on. Avoid avoiding.
If I could sum up the basic premise of how therapy works for anxiety conditions, it would be this: Anxiety, in all of its various forms and manifestations, increases the more we avoid whatever we are afraid of. The way to lessen and get rid of anxiety is to face what we are afraid of with the courage of a lioness protecting her cubs. What I tell my clients is that they are in essence, “afraid of being afraid”. For example, one of my clients had a panic attack at a supermarket and now avoids going to the supermarket at all costs because she associates the dreaded state of panic with grocery shopping. But I explained to her that it wasn’t the supermarket that caused her to have a panic attack (I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly find food shopping that exciting!) In this case, she had linked an internal experience to an external environment. Her homework was to go grocery shopping even in the face of her fear. When she tried this out the first time, she was absolutely terrified but did it anyway. It aroused lots of fear, but she told herself that supermarkets weren’t at their core, dangerous places. Over time, she completely lost the fear of grocery shopping and recently told me while laughing that food shopping actually “bores” her. I love the title of Susan Jeffers fabulous book from years ago called, “Face the Fear and Do it Anyway”. She is a wise woman…
- 2. Dwell in the glow of your successes when you’ve faced a fear and come out the other side.
A real motivator for staying on course with any challenging new health regime (in this case a mental health regime) is enjoying the successes that come from all the hard work you’re putting into it. So in the previous example, when the going got hard for this particular client in constantly facing her fears, I asked her to remind herself what it felt like the first time she made herself go grocery shopping despite her immense fear of collapsing into another panic attack. She immediately perked up and told me, “I did it! It felt so great to actually do what I was so afraid of and have nothing bad happen. I learned that I could be bigger than my fear.” I couldn’t have put that any better myself. This wise woman speaks the truth- we can always make a decision to be bigger than our fear.
- 3. PLAY!!!!!!!!!!!
I often ask this question of my anxious clients- were you a very serious child? The answer is always a resounding YES! When I was looking at some old report cards of my own from elementary school I actually found this comment from a teacher: “Esther is not a big risk taker. She tends to keep her back closely to the wall and studies the other children engaging in exuberant behavior.” Was I a serious child? Ah, that would be a yes. I can remember doing exactly what the teacher described waiting to see if the other kids got hurt before I would jump into something. Anxious people (myself definitely included) tend to be quite serious and often overly cautious. While these are excellent traits to apply to many areas of life, if they tend to take the lead, we often miss out on having fun- a word I actually had to look up in the dictionary when a therapist suggested I should have some (this is sadly 100% true and not made up). And science backs this up. When our muscles are relaxed, we have little anxiety. When we tense up and get rigid, we are more apt to go into ‘fight or flight mode’ and can become very anxious. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that having fun makes us looser and more relaxed but it’s good to be reminded when we start wearing our shoulders as earrings…
Hope you found these tips helpful. Please share with my readers how they apply to you or what tools you’ve learned to lower anxiety by writing to me at: email@example.com.