Think of a time when you were anxious recently. What did you feel in your body? Tightness, your stomach flip flopping, quickening breath? Did you have a thought about these physical symptoms, like ‘this is terrible, this feeling won’t go away, I can’t stand this, what’s wrong with me?’? When you have those thoughts, what happens to your physical symptoms? Most likely they get more intense, which keeps your anxious thoughts going. This cycle is the anxiety cycle.
When you are anxious you most likely focus more on the perceived risk or threat. So, the physical symptoms become more threatening when you have thoughts like ‘I will have a heart attack’ or ‘what if this feeling never goes away?’. Chances are that you also exaggerate threats like ‘ what if I say something really stupid and everyone thinks I am dumb?’ or ‘what if I don’t have enough time to finish all my work and I get fired?’. You may think of the worst case scenario, but you don’t think about how you could handle it or cope with the perceived negative consequences.
You also probably underestimate your ability to cope with the threat and the resources you have to deal with it. If you thought, ‘oh, I know this anxious feeling, it’s uncomfortable, but it will go away soon’ or ‘I can tolerate this feeling, let’s see what happens when I do some slow breathing.’, the sensations and intense emotions will eventually lessen instead of growing more intense. Sometimes our resources include problem solving. If you can shift your focus to what you need to do to make the situation better, it may not seem so threatening.
If you would like to learn more about how cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness can help you build your resources to tolerate anxiety, please contact Betsy Clark, [email protected].