One of the hardest things about feeling anxious is the confusion about what’s real and what isn’t. Anxiety fears feel like they’re true, but they’re usually not. They’re belief systems that are so quickly inflamed and so endlessly repeated that most of time we end up believing in thoughts that are far from reality.
It gets tricky when the thought starts with a grain of truth. Maybe one time you had a fender-bender on the freeway, and that fear creates a loop in your mind so that now you’re scared ever to drive in fast traffic. Or at one party, you said something embarrassing, and now you’re convinced that every word out of your mouth is a potential social bomb. These thoughts are harder to shake because they’re based in reality.
And yet the way we deal with them is far from realistic. Anxiety causes each thought or experience to swell and darken, until they look and feel much more menacing than they really are. Concerns that others could soothe with some simple cooling thoughts—“Traffic accidents are relatively rare” or “Everyone says something embarrassing occasionally, but people like them anyway”—start to feel impossible to tame.
Sometime anxiety starts in the body instead of as a thought. The sympathetic nervous system gets triggered, we feel a thumping heartbeat, quicker breathing and twitchy muscles, and then the mind looks for something to blame it on. What am I so upset about? Suddenly we’re searching for a cause and choosing targets that may or may not be significant. It must be my relationship. And then we’re off on the cycle of repetitive thoughts that feel unmanageable.
Anxious thoughts and an anxious response in our bodies are almost always linked, and they always need to be dealt with on both levels. First, taking deep breaths and slowing our body movements can help bring some oxygen and blood flow back to the brain, making it easier to think logically. Experts suggest breathing in to a count of four and out to a count of five, both through the nose. The slower out-breath mimics breathing patterns while we sleep, and can help trick our brain into thinking we’re relaxed before we actually are.
Second, it’s time for a reality check. When we can’t tell the difference between a reasonable fear and an anxious one, we need to check in. Sometimes we can do that on our own, with a thought record. Cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques have a specific worksheet you can follow to identify a thought that’s causing you grief, examine it, decide which facts support it and which negate it, and then replace it with a more rational idea. Here’s a link to a nice explanation of how that’s done: http://ohsheglows.com/2011/11/02/how-to-reframe-a-negative-thought-with-a-thought-record/
Other times, it’s really hard to figure out on our own if our thoughts are realistic. That’s when a friend, sponsor, spiritual guide or therapist can help. Check in with someone else to see if your fears make sense or line up with other people’s vision of the world. If you get outside verification that, in fact, none of your friends worries about going broke every time he or she spends a dollar, then this can help you recognize that this fear is out of proportion.
This is step number one on a road to anxiety relief. And it’s a big, important step—knowing that some of your thoughts are causing you unnecessary pain. To identify these thoughts is to open the door to the rest of the steps that can heal them, which will eventually include being able to replace the thoughts, test them in the world, and have an arsenal of tools designed to soothe them. But before any of that work can be done, first work on labeling the thought what it really is—a tormenter who lies to you. A critic who frightens. An exaggeration that intimidates. And an old pattern, that can and will be controlled.