Anxiety is powerful and persistent. It can hit you as soon as you wake up in the morning and can keep you from going to sleep at night. It can cause you to shut down, feel numb, and become immobile, but can also provide you with a burst of energy due to racing, and worrisome thoughts. Anxiety is uncomfortable and consuming. It impacts relationships, decision making, self-esteem, and confidence among other things. Anxiety can be a symptom of environmental stressors and can also be caused by your biological makeup (i.e. genetics). Regardless, it can be quite disruptive to your life. Although anxiety is strong, it can be managed using a variety of techniques. In this blog, I am going to cover one of these techniques, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a method some therapists use to help clients cope with anxiety. If you would like to learn some other strategies to help you cope with anxiety, you can read some of my previous blogs including:
CBT methods teach people to challenge their thoughts and beliefs which will then have an impact on their emotions. Typically, when a person is experiencing an episode of anxiety, they are having automatic thoughts (i.e.: self talk, toxic thoughts, etc.). The worst case scenario may play out in your head regardless of whether or not it is realistic or logical. For example, for parents of young children, if your 2 year old child is climbing on a play set, you may think they will fall, break something, and then you will have to rush them to the ER. As a result, you quickly tell them they aren’t allowed to climb or you stand directly behind them with your hands supporting their body so they most certainly won’t fall. The result is a child who doesn’t learn risk assessing skills or develop confidence in their ability to climb. For adolescents, failing a test or getting a poor grade on an assignment may trigger anxiety, which may result in negative thoughts including, “I’m not going to get into a good college,” or “I’m so stupid.” Anxiety escalates and automatic toxic thoughts intensify.
Challenging your thoughts and beliefs can be a challenge in itself. Anxiety is a bit more invasive than just a few negative, irrational thoughts. Anxiety impacts your breathing, heart rate, digestion, and more. It releases stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol which feels like your whole body has been hijacked. As a result, it takes a lot of self control, commitment, and will power to challenge the negative thoughts and beliefs that anxiety can produce. It can be a constant thing as well. In some instances, it may be more beneficial to redirect yourself first if you experience stronger episodes of anxiety. Breathing exercises along with a mindful activity such as playing an instrument or doing a crossword puzzle can help relieve the physiological symptoms of anxiety enough so you feel like you are more in control of your thoughts. The following are steps you can take in order to challenge irrational thoughts that surface from anxiety once you are more in control:
- Recognize your symptoms of anxiety.
- If your anxiety is significant, redirect yourself, breath, and participate in a mindful activity to alleviate the physiological symptoms of anxiety.
- Identify irrational, negative thoughts/beliefs that are produced due to your anxiety episode.
- Challenge these thoughts and beliefs. Remember, just because your mind is producing the thoughts and beliefs does not mean they are true or realistic .
- Counter your irrational thoughts and beliefs with more realistic thoughts and beliefs. For example, you can tell yourself that your 2 year old child most likely will not fall and break something if they climb a few steps on a play set. Offer words of encouragement to your child, provide enough space for them, and be present should they fall and scrape a knee.
Predicting the worst case scenario (catastrophizing), overgeneralizing, and jumping to conclusions are all examples of cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions play a key role with anxiety. It is essentially your mind convincing you of something that isn’t true or realistic. Convincing is the key word here. One way to put this into perspective is to compare this to a game of Texas Holdem Poker. For instance, if you and I are playing a game of poker, you can have a hand that is much better than mine. However, I can bet a good amount of chips, which will produce anxiety and fear for you. As a result, your mind will convince you that I have a better hand than you causing you to fold. If you are able to recognize your own anxiety, cognitive distortions, and challenge your thinking and beliefs, you will know to raise my bet which will cause me to fold since my hand isn’t as good as yours. Similarly, if you challenge other cognitive distortions in your life, your decision making will be much more logical and you will not allow anxiety to dictate your life and actions. It is a way for you to regain control.