I have been thinking a lot lately about anxiety. Everywhere we look right now, there are more than enough reasons to feel anxious. In an article from Psychology Today, which was actually published in 2012, Dr. Chapman lists two reasons why Americans have a high rate of anxiety: the normalcy bias and achievement motivation. The normalcy bias is the idea that we live beyond our means, the “keeping up with the Joneses” type of mentality where we will have more value and be happier if we accumulate more money, stuff, etc. Whereas the achievement motivation is a social need to pursue excellence, strive for success, achieve influence, etc. Doing a quick Google search for anxiety produces the following definition: “anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Right now many Americans are feeling anxious over the uncertainty of where the country is headed, which is another type of anxiety that is more externally based.
I don’t know about you, but even saying the word anxiety makes me feel anxious.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has so many wonderful tools to help break down our troubling thoughts, challenge them, and move toward a more peaceful state of mental existence. Depending on the cause of anxiety, such as if we feel like we are in control of our future or if we feel like the external world holds greater control, Narrative Therapy is also another great tool. Narrative Therapy challenges the stories we tell ourselves and the stories that are told about us from an external, political, sociocultural perspective. For those feeling anxious from oppression, Narrative Therapy can help people reclaim control of their personal stories (more to come on Narrative Therapy in a future post!).
So let’s get down to the heart of the matter.
First off, I highly recommend therapy if you are feeling deep levels of anxiety. Getting help is always a courageous act. Sometimes in this disconnected world of fast pace living, social media, smart phones, ear buds, and more, we do not engage and fully listen to each other, so having someone give you full, undivided attention and care can be healing in and of itself.
Now that I have given the counseling plug, I think there are definitely some tangible ways we can work on our own anxiety on a day-to-day basis.
Challenging your thoughts through a CBT lens:
There is a lot of chatter these days about journaling. You can buy journals to help you get organized, journals to help you dream and outline your passions, journals to remind you to focus on gratitude, and so much more. Journaling is a powerful tool. There is a great article on PsychCentral on the health benefits of journaling. So how can you use journaling to combat anxiety?
CBT focuses on the principal that our thoughts and actions are connected together with our feelings. Becoming more aware of how our thoughts, feelings and behaviors interact can help us make the changes we desire. For example, someone is anxious about making a life change, like going to graduate school. When this person thinks about graduate school, all these thoughts snowball, like “I cannot afford it; I do not have time; I will have to quit my job,” which lead to feelings of anxiety that cause this person to completely avoid graduate school all together.
Journaling can help us become more aware of the interconnection between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
For example, start by writing down something you feel anxious about. Then define why this thing is important to you (why does this thing preoccupy your thoughts or cause you anxiety?). Then start listing all the fears and thoughts you have about this aspect of your life. Once everything is written down, then go back and see if you can challenge your thoughts. Is there any evidence to the contrary of your thoughts? What would a friend say to you (or what would you say to a friend expressing these thoughts)? If you look at the situation positively, how is it different? Will this situation really matter in a year or in 10 years from now? What strengths and resources do you possess that might make this situation better?
Example of a journal from someone anxious about graduate school:
Looking at the examples in the journal above, as the person moves forward, there could be results that affirm her fears, such as maybe her HR department offers no resources for school, or maybe her boss will not allow her to have a flexible work schedule. This process of challenging our thoughts and behaviors needs to be a continual process. And sometimes challenging our thoughts does not work. When that happens, we can start with changing our actions, knowing we might still have to act while we feel anxious. For example, maybe the person above decides to go ahead with graduate school regardless of not getting any financial aid or help at work with a flexible schedule. As she acts, she might find that her worst fears were not even close to being true (e.g. maybe she is getting straight As, maybe the university offered an affordable payment plan to avoid debt, maybe she makes a career connection that leads her to her dream job, which makes the stress of time and money worth the anxiety because she can redefine the entire situation in light of this positive outcome). As she faces her fears and acts, she is building an internal resouce that she can draw strength from for any future worries. Next time when she is faced with a big life change, she can reflect back to her experience of going to graduate school and remind herself of her resilience, strength, and capability.
Not into journaling?
There are all sorts of ways to try to calm our nervous system: yoga, deep-breathing, meditation, coloring, exercise, just to name a few. Another great idea is to just get outside of yourself and help someone else. There is a movement called One Kindness where essentially you focus on doing one nice thing for someone else during the day. To get inspired, you can hear the founder, John Wang, talk about the movement and the power of kindness here.
When all else fails? Find something that makes you laugh. Sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine.