If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times. Anxiety lies! Anxiety is a lying liar who lies! I'd yell it from the rooftop if I could. Anxiety is a master manipulator and it exaggerates the truth until it is blue in the face. Anxiety has a tendency highlight our biggest fears and weaknesses without taking into account our strengths, capabilities, or our lived experiences of continually doing hard things. Anxiety shoves reality out the window and sets up camp in our mind and body while it begins preaching doom and gloom to our soul. Anxiety will remind us of the worst case scenarios but will never mention all the times it has been dead wrong. It always skips over all the lies it told us that never came true.
While anxiety tends to be a hindrance to us currently, historically and genetically, our anxiety served an important purpose for our ancestors, it was an evolutionary adaptation (EEA) to avoid danger and harm. In potentially dangerous situations, the physical and emotional sensations of anxiety caused our ancestors to respond by fighting (escalating behavior) or fleeing (de-escalating behavior) to respond to dangerous situations.
Today our brains remain programmed to reduce harm and experience an increased sense of safety. While our brains' responses have remained relatively the same, what we now interpret as dangerous and anxiety provoking has morphed and changed with time. For individuals experiencing anxiety, the sensation related to having to make a phone call, showing up at a holiday party, braving winter roads, or having a hard conversation with a family member can produce the same physiological responses as staring down a sabertooth tiger. This is why anxiety is a tricky, tricky, lying, liar because the stimulus that causes us to experience such physical and emotional discomfort usually isn't as dangerous as our anxiety tell us it is. For example, for someone who has anxiety, making a phone call may feel as scary as staring down a sabertooth tiger but in actuality, their lives are NOT at risk. Very rarely are people harmed in the making of a restaurant reservation, and yet it can feel terrifying to do so.
So how do we realign our minds and bodies, bring them back into reality, and challenge our bodily fear responses? Challenging and treating anxiety requires individuals to be both aware and brave. First, we need to become more aware of how our anxiety manifests itself in our lives. Consider asking yourself the following:
- What are the physical signs and symptoms that I'm experiencing anxiety? Where do I feel it in my body?
- Example: Racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, pressure on the chest, blotchy skin on neck and chest. Right now, my anxiety feels like it is living in my stomach.
- What thought patterns do you I often experience that create or increase my anxiety?
- Example: "I'm not good enough", "No one will talk to me." "I always mess up", "Everyone notices my flaws", "Everyone thinking I'm weird", and "I can't do anything right", "Nothing ever works out", or "I shouldn't even try, it won't be perfect enough".
- What are the people, situations, or environments that triggers me to experience anxiety?
- Example: Social situations, taking a test, talking about money, asking for help, when I'm really tired when I have low blood sugar, or after a major disappointment, or when I'm feeling really incompetent and/or vulnerable.
Second, we need to practice being brave! While awareness is an important first step, it often isn't enough to quiet the lies anxiety tell us. To tackle anxiety, especially social anxiety, we need to expose ourselves to what we're most afraid of to prove that our anxiety is being dishonest and that it is actively distorting reality. This is only appropriate when what we are anxious about doesn't pose an actual risk to our mind, bodies, or spirit. If you have anxiety about going into dark alleys in the middle of the night, that anxiety seems to be warning you of appropriate an realistic possible harm - let's listen to it. In therapy, we utilize exposure therapy as a way of being brave, challenging anxiety, and showing it who is boss. This means we expose or experience the situations that usually cause us anxiety, armed with the improved coping mechanism, and then follow up the experience with a strong dose of reflection to compare what anxiety told us would happen and what ACTUALLY happened.
Reflecting on being brave might include asking ourselves questions like:
- What did the experience feel like in my body? Was the story my anxiety told me about the situation, (holiday party, taking a test, making a phone call) match up with the experience I actually had?
- What was "real" about what just happened? Reflect on the experience you just had - what actually happened?
- Example: That going into the doctor's office and requesting more information wasn't as bad as I thought it would be...
- Did my anxiety lie to me? If so, how can I recognize and challenge my anxiety in the future so I can tell it to shut up?
- Do the lies my anxiety tell me have a regular pattern?
- Example: Yes, my anxiety continually exaggerates how uncomfortable a situation might be, when the reality is that most of the time, it's okay, or at the very worst, tolerable.
To recap, anxiety lies and it's up to you to expose how anxiety shows up in your mind and body and to challenge it! To practice challenging the lies anxiety tells you, consider the following steps:
1. Identify the Lie - Name the message or potential lie that your anxiety is telling you
Example: My anxiety is telling me that no one will like me, so I shouldn't even try to make friends.
2. Name Your Fear - Name your biggest fear about the anxiety-producing situation
Example: My biggest fear is that if I'm myself when I meet new people, no one will like me.
3. Interrogate your Anxiety - Put the messages your anxiety is telling you on trial. What's the evidence that your anxiety is telling the truth? What evidence proves this message to be incorrect? Pretend you're Matlock or Olivia Benson and integrate your anxiety. Be fierce my friends, be fierce. (Fun fact: The practice of cultivating awareness and distance from our thoughts is the basis of Cognitive Behavior Therapy.)
Example: Well actually, when I'm being myself I do find that people like me and I'm able to make friends. I'm a kind and loyal friend. It's when I listen to my anxiety that I end up acting off, I resort to being really quiet and distant, and not giving others the opportunity to get to know me. My anxiety does have some truth to it, not everyone is going to like me, but at the same time, not everyone is going to NOT like me. You win some, you lose some.
4. Practice Being BRAVE! As long as the anxiety-producing situation doesn't pose an actual threat to your mind, body, and spirit - practice stepping into the situations that cause you anxiety, with the help and reassurance of anxiety management coping skills (deep breathing, having a plan, writing a script, utilizing a support person or wing-man, etc). This means you show up at the holiday party, try a new hobby, have the hard conversation, and make the phone call. You practice doing exactly what you're anxiety is telling you not to do.
When we face what feels like our personal sabertooth tigers, with our coping mechanisms in hand, we prove to our mind and body that the reality of what we are most scared of is actually not a life or death threat. Instead, our sabertooth tiger is a customer service representative named 'Dan' who was really nice and more than willing to talk us through a payment plan for our medical bills.
5. Remember to Reflect - this step is often missed but it is VERY important if our goal is to really shut-up anxiety longterm. AFTER being brave and surviving an anxiety-producing event, taking the time to remember the messages and lies your anxiety told you and comparing it to what actually happened is important because you begin to identify and shut down anxiety patterns. You start to expose your anxiety as a fraud and the lying liar that it is As a result, you start to believe your anxiety less.
For example, say your anxiety always lies and says you'll never enjoy yourself in social situations because you always say dumb things, so to reduce feeling anxiety and discomfort you opt to stay in most nights. However, you're brave and go out with friends and have an enjoyable experience, you say a few dumb things but so does everyone else! You come home and before you forget the lies your anxiety told you, you reflect that your anxiety often is super critical of how YOU will act but it's very gracious and forgiving towards how others act. You begin to notice a pattern that your anxiety tends to exaggerate your actions and how you will be perceived by others. You notice a pattern that your anxiety always lies about how others will view you but in reality, those same friends you think you act stupid in front of, who are embarrassed by you, keep asking you to spend time with them!
Stepping away and exploring our experiences right AFTER an anxiety-producing experience can teach us a great deal. So, the next time you are brave and show up to face your anxiety and experience the relief of passing the test or having the hard conversation you've been dreading, take a few minutes and reflect and put your anxiety in its place!
I want to take a minute to acknowledge that some people experience "free-floating" anxiety or Generalized Anxiety Disorder where an aspect of their anxiety is not always rooted in facing specific situations. While the steps above remain an important foundation for challenging anxiety-producing thoughts and experiences, sometimes a gentle surrender is often required for free-floating anxiety where the anxiety is simply noticed, the person acknowledges they can't identify its source, and they practice sitting with their anxiety without feeling the need to solve it or act on it. Instead, they remind themselves their anxiety will pass or lesson with time while utilizing appropriate coping mechanisms like mindfulness or deep breathing. In the near future, I'll write a blog post on how we can learn to mindfully sit with our free-floating anxiety.
I hope these simple tips and tricks help you have a more honest relationship with yourself, your anxiety, and that you begin to challenge the lies anxiety often tell you! Just like everything else, it takes practice, self-compassion, a bit of failure, and a willingness to try again.
Feel free to leave any comments or questions in the comments section below!
- Sara Hughes-Zabawa