I’ve been thinking a lot about worry lately- or, to be more precise- I’ve been plagued by worry a lot lately. And as fate would have it, so have many of my clients. Being a Highly Sensitive Person(HSP for short) and working with so many HSP’s in my practice, I am keenly aware that one of the major downsides to having this personality is the tendency to be anxious a lot of the time.
I’ve done a lot more research on handling anxiety and I thought I’d share some good tools and resources with you to help you conquer anxiety in your own life…
Step #1: Do the thing that scares you the most until it doesn’t scare you anymore
This tool is one of the greatest to squelch fears for good and is touted by innumerable anxiety experts to get the upper hand on the anxiety monster in your head. The basic idea here is this:
DO THE THING THAT IS THE COMPLETE OPPOSITE OF WHAT YOUR MIND IS TELLING YOU TO DO.
This is most easily demonstrated by using the example of someone with a phobia. Let’s say that Sue is terrified of flying on an airplane and has massive panic attacks every time she steps onto an airplane to go on vacation or for work. The cure?
SUE NEEDS TO FLY ON AIRPLANES AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE AND FACE HER FEARS HEAD-ON (this is known in the field as “exposure therapy”).
As David Burns, MD points out in his book, When Panic Attacks, this is the most challenging treatment of all when it comes to snuffing out anxiety. I describe it as ‘jumping right into the freezing cold water’ versus ‘inching your way into the freezing cold water one body part at a time’. In short, it’s fast, incredibly exhilarating and downright terrifying, but once it’s done, you can kiss that anxiety goodbye.
In the book I just mentioned, David Burns gives a hilarious example of treating a woman with an elevator phobia with the highest stakes version of exposure therapy called “flooding”- which is full-force immersion into one’s worst fear- facing the fear and waiting it out until it dissipates) who was cured in 20 minutes! In short, Dr. Burns walked the client to an elevator, encouraged her to go in and ride up and down, feel the panic, ride it out, and then meet him on the floor he was waiting on at the end.
As she was riding up and down in the elevator, the woman met some handsome young men who were moving offices and enjoyed flirting with them while simultaneously telling them that she was in the elevator as treatment for her elevator phobia and her shrink was waiting for her on the third floor while she cured herself!
Step #2: Set Aside A Specific Time to Worry and Stick to it
I absolutely love this technique because it injects humour into the situation. You see, us anxious worrywarts tend to be very serious about things. I’m guessing if you can relate to what I’m saying here, you were most definitely a serious baby and crawled around with a furrowed brow looking like a French Existentialist philosopher, asking yourself this question about all you see around you: “What is the purpose of all of this?” If there is one thing I’ve learned by now about anxiety is that HUMOUR is anxiety’s ‘kryptonite’ and the more you can make light of things, the less anxiety will have the upper hand. When I’m in an anxious state I will often ask my hubby, “What’s funny about this?” and he always manages to find something we can laugh about. Works every time.
There is a great web resource I found called Anxiety BC that contains loads of helpful resources. They even have a 24-hour anxiety crisis line you can utilize. On this site, I watched a helpful little video about Generalized Anxiety Disorder, where an expert gives the following tip:
SET ASIDE A TIME AT THE END OF EVERY DAY FOR 20-30 MINUTES FOR WORRYING AND TELL YOURSELF THAT YOU’RE ONLY ALLOWED TO WORRY DURING THAT TIME PERIOD.
Say you decide that you will worry from 9:30-10:00 pm every evening. Throughout your day, when a worry pops up, jot it down in your ‘worry notebook’ to review at 9:30 and tell yourself you’ll address it then. You have to try this one out to see how incredible it is. I use a similar technique where I have clients make a ‘worry jar’ and every time a worry comes up, I tell them to write it on a scrap of paper and put it in their worry jar.
Then, on the same day each week, they go through the scraps of paper, one worry at a time and see if it’s still a worry to them. In almost every case, they find it funny to see what they were worrying about (especially the worry notes they wrote in the middle of the night!), and realize that these weren’t legitimate concerns to be so upset about.
However, sometimes a particular worry keeps resurfacing and that brings us to the last and perhaps most important step…
Step #3: Take concrete actions on worries that you have control over
Another great resource I discovered is a book by a psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders named Reid Wilson. It’s called; Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry and I highly recommend it. In this wonderful book filled to the brim with real-life examples of people overcoming their fears, Wilson differentiates between what he calls “signals” and “noise” and what to do with each one.
In essence, signals are worries that we can take concrete action on to lessen the fear associated with them and noise is the worries that roll around in our head that are out of our control or are irrelevant. The key is to figure out which one each worry is that pops up and treat it accordingly. I’ll give you an example to show how this works in real life.
Working with ‘Signals’
One of my clients wakes up most nights in a cold sweat with this thought: “We don’t have enough money now that I’ve left my husband. How will I support my kids?” She brought this worry to a session we had and we examined it and decided that it was a ‘signal’ because she could take concrete action towards lessening her fear. We looked at several practical steps she could take to lessen the probability that she wouldn’t be able to pay for everything she and her two children needed. Here are some things she planned on taking action on for homework to lessen her fear around money:
•Talk to a lawyer about getting a divorce and what that would provide in terms of alemony and child support from her ex
•Set up a meeting with her financial advisor to make the money she has coming in work for her as productively as possible
•Make a spreadsheet of a realistic budget for her current situation
The next time she came to see me, she reported happily that her ‘money worries’ had greatly decreased and she was sleeping soundly once again to her great relief.
Learning to ignore ‘Noise’
The other kinds of worries fall into the category of ‘noise’ and are pretty much useless to spend any time on, as they are not productive. Again, I will give an example to illustrate:
Another client of mine had the same worry crop up over and over:
What if there is an earthquake?
I’ve worked with this particular one multiple times because I live in the Pacific Northwest which is most definitely an earthquake zone and the probability of there being an actual earthquake is significant. However, even though earthquakes are a scary thought to everyone I know, we don’t have a whole lot of control over if and when they happen and our worrying about them has zero effect on preventing them from happening so it’s really a waste of our thought-producing efforts.
Side note: In Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, Wilson points out that according to research on the human brain, each of us engages in FOUR HOURS of self-talk per day! Based on this finding, I highly recommend that you not waste any of those hours on self-defeating thoughts about external events over which you have no control such as earthquakes.
How can you differentiate between a ‘signal’ to take action and ‘noise’? Well, ‘noise’ thoughts generally begin with these two words: “What if…?” If you find yourself “what if-ing” a lot, you’ve probably got to turn down the ‘volume’ of your noisy intrusive thoughts. How do you do this? When you have the thought, try saying to yourself:
BE QUIET NOISE- I’M CHOOSING TO IGNORE YOU
And continue to go about your business without acting on those silly thoughts.
Here’s wishing you a lot less worrying and lot more fun!