Think Your Way Out of Anxiety

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From Urban Balance staff

What do Michael J. Fox, Keanu Reeves and you all have in common?  Give up?  You have all taken an imaginary trip through time.  The first two through the magic of cinematic art (think “Back to the Future” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”).  You, though the power of your own imagination and anxiety.

When we experience stress and anxiety, many things can happen.  We can experience physical discomfort in the body, including muscle aches and pains, abdominal discomfort, and shallow breathing.  We can also experience mental and emotional discomfort in the form of disorganized racing thoughts, including a barrage of “what if” scenarios that can get more and more extreme.

It is these thoughts that enable us to travel through time. We imagine all sorts of future possibilities of bad things happening to us, and can often start to believe that they will happen. We put ourselves in that future situation, and because it’s in our imagination, we feel that there’s nothing we can do about it. The anxiety continues to grow, as our thoughts get faster, building upon themselves until we have created an imaginary catastrophe.  For example, “What if my boss doesn’t like this presentation? What if he fires me? What will I do then?  I won’t be able to pay my rent, and I’ll get kicked out of my place. Where will I live? What if I end up on the street shaking a McDonald’s cup for change?” A relatively genuine concern can turn into the end of the world in a matter of seconds. The anxiety can take over, leaving us distracted, rattled, and most importantly, depleted of self-confidence. We can start to believe that we’re going to do poorly on the presentation, causing us to dread it, nerves taking over and the experience becoming something terrible.  I have dubbed this “The Anxiety Time Machine”.

Fortunately, this has all taken place so far in between our ears.  None of it has actually happened….yet.  These thoughts are just that: thoughts. While it doesn’t necessarily feel like it, we do have a LOT of control over this.

The first step is to recognize when you are in your time machine.  As stated above, a big clue to this is the “what if” thoughts. Once you’ve noticed it, the next step is to challenge them with a rational response. Remind yourself that it is NOT happening right now. “The presentation is tomorrow, not today”, for example.  Take note of your physical surroundings, and remind yourself where and when you actually are.  “I’m here in my living room, I can see my coffee table”.

Now that you’re in the present day, think about what you do have control over.  What can you actually do to decrease the chance that your “what if” will come true?  “I can practice my presentation again. I can get feedback from my colleagues”. Anxiety thrives on a sense of loss of control.  Taking back control puts you in the drivers seat, not the anxiety. You can get back into your time machine, and imagine it going well. “I practiced this, and can see myself doing fine”.

Finally, how likely is it for your worst case “what if” to happen? Even if the boss doesn’t like the presentation, how likely are you to get fired? “It’s more likely that he’ll talk to me about my performance, and about ways that I could improve”. Often, this feels much better than what you had originally thought would happen. Your anxiety can return to a more manageable level, and you’re more likely to do well on that presentation.

So please, step away from the Delorian. The future is imaginary.  You are in the present, and there is usually something you can do about it.