Those of you who have experienced anxiety in your life, you know the heart-pounding, head spinning sensations that can make it feel like whatever is right in front of you needs to be avoided at all costs. Clinical anxiety can be debilitating, but it is also one of the most treatable mental health disorders around. If you’re someone who has said, ‘I’ve always had anxiety and I think I always will,” you may be missing out on a life filled with renewed peace because anxiety is a very treatable condition. We just need to be able to recognize it and seek help for it.
Many of us have had seasons where we are more anxious than usual, times when it seems like we are worrying about more things, more often— and we may have asked ourselves, “Is this getting out of hand?” Sorting through the criteria for anxiety as well as considering my clinical experience, I developed this acronym that isn’t comprehensive but gives us a good start in determining anxiety symptoms. I’ve chosen the acronym FAST: Functioning, Avoidance, Severity and Time. Those of you with anxiety can probably relate to this: you may have consistently FAST thoughts, fast heart rate, you may be prompted to make fast decisions just to avoid sitting in the anxiety of the unknown. How does this manifest in our daily lives?
Functioning: When anyone enters into a therapist’s office for an initial assessment, one the main things we consider is this: how are these symptoms effecting your functioning? We may ask specific questions to determine if the symptoms are interfering with your daily ability to function. It may feel counterintuitive, but biologically and psychosocially, some anxiety is good. It helps motivate us for change and action. We may feel both nervous and excited before big events, presentations, even social events. A healthy dose of anxiety may lead us to prepare adequately. How we frame this motivation can make a significant difference in the outcome, though. Fascinating research shows that when we start having anxious thoughts about an upcoming event, when we replace the cognitive appraisal “I’m nervous” with ‘I’m excited” we actually yield more positive outcomes.
So anxiety can be helpful in small, motivating doses, but what if our anxiety is preventing us from attending those events in the first place? If anxiety leads us to avoid things altogether or consistently leave early because we can’t seem to enjoy ourselves due to our anxiety, that’s when it’s effecting our DAILY functioning.
Avoidance: As humans, we tend to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Anxiety is uncomfortable, so, as our anxiety increases, many of us want to avoid the thing/trigger that brings up those anxious feelings. However, the paradox of anxiety is that the more we avoid what we feel anxious about, the more we train our brain that that event or person or presentation IS actually threatening— leading us to avoid it even more and INCREASE our anxiety. When we avoid things, we teach our brain that there really IS something to be afraid of— it looks a little like this:
trigger —> anxiety perceives danger —> avoidance —> perception of threat increases —> more avoidance (and the cycle continues).
However, when we face into our anxieties ( with support if needed) we re-wire that pathway that used to associate our feared experience with negative outcomes and instead we begin to associate it with more positive outcomes. When we face into our anxiety instead of avoiding it, a new neural pathway is developed and it’s now shifted from:
trigger —> perceived danger to
trigger —> exposure to feared situation —-> non-dangerous outcome —-> neutralizing the possibility of threat for next time.
If you’ve ever experienced crippling anxiety or seen it in a loved one, you’ll start to notice that their world becomes smaller and smaller — because the list of things that are “safe enough” continues to diminish the more you avoid. At first it may be avoiding a particular person at a party, then it becomes avoiding the party altogether. At first it may be not going to a certain part of town, then it becomes the surrounding area and before you know it, you’re not leaving your house. Avoidance is a key sign that you may be struggling with something more than transient worry. If you find yourself avoiding things on a regular basis due to your anxiety, it may be time to get some more support.
Severity: Anxiety runs along a spectrum. Healthy anxiety notifies us of a concern or motivates us to make a change. Severe anxiety paralyzes us from acting on that concern or making that change. Healthy anxiety motivates us, severe anxiety debilitates us. If you start to notice that your anxiety is increasing in severity, it may be time to get some additional support.
Time: Finally, take a look at the time you spend focusing on particular thought patterns. If you have anxiety or know someone who does, you’re likely to hear them talk about the incredible mental energy that anxiety takes up in their mind. Therapists call it ruminating, you may call it “thoughts that won’t stop running through my head”. In healthy thought processes, we notice our thoughts then direct them toward action or release them. Anxious thinking is when we find ourselves, more often than not, STUCK. We may be re-playing a conversation we had with someone over and over for days. We may have difficulty when we perceive others didn’t understand our intentions and be unable to enjoy the conversation or relationship because of these anxiety-provoking thoughts. If your thoughts run like a broken record verses a fluid album, you may be struggling from anxiety.
So what do we DO with all this info? There are many options a mental health professional could take but two main ones are CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and exposure therapy. If you’re struggling with anxiety, I highly recommend walking through counseling with a trained professional who can help you identify which thought patterns are keeping you stuck and which areas you need to gently face into in exposure therapy and to what degree. Here are a few steps to get started today:
Don’t believe everything you think. This is a challenging aspect for many people with anxiety because we can, at times, think that if we just think hard enough about something we will finally come to a place of peace about it. We want to “figure it out” so desperately we run our minds on a hamster wheel, not realizing we actually aren’t going anywhere. Anxiety runs off what we call “cognitive distortions”, These are, just how they sound, ways of thinking that are distorted or incomplete. Here are a few examples:
Catastrophizing: When we catastrophize, we automatically assume the worst case scenario will happen without considering that there could be a neutral or even positive outcome to the situation. Our brains do this to seemingly soften the blow of rejection if something bad were to happen— but the challenge with this way of thinking is that we are actually more likely to experience negative outcomes if that’s what we are expecting. This becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Next time you catch yourself heading to the worst-case scenario and assuming you won’t be able to handle it, take a moment to remind yourself of this truth: “Whatever I’m afraid of may or may not happen, but God is with me and together, we can handle it.”
We don’t want to avoid reality by just saying “Oh, don’t worry you’ll be fine.” Anxious brains don’t fall for that. Instead, we can remind ourselves that yes, hard things do happen in this world, but it may or MAY NOT actually happen and EVEN if it does, you’re resilient, you’re not alone and you will be able to move through it.
Selective abstraction: This is when we take one piece of information and focus on it to the exclusion of all the other pieces of information. If you went to a party and focused solely on the one person who gave you a weird look ONCE and ignored the hours of smiles from everyone, you would be engaging in this cognitive distortion. A solution? Picture yourself ZOOMING OUT. Ask yourself, “What would come into focus for me if I zoomed OUT in this scenario?” See if you can notice the things that were formerly in the background or allow yourself to see this story from the perspective of the other characters in the book. There’s much to learn when we choose to recognize our perspective is limited.
Overgeneralization: When we overgeneralize, we take one snapshot in time and generalize it to all moments in time, for all of time. For example, if you bombed one speech, you assume you’ll never do good at any speeches (or even anything that involves talking or standing up in front of people.)
What to do if you catch yourself doing this? Get into lawyer mode: Don’t allow your brain to bully you into thinking one area of your life defines every area. Search diligently for evidence to the contrary. You could remind yourself that, “I may not have done great at that presentation, but I stood up in front of my friends and told a funny story and they loved it.” Finding evidence to the contrary of your anxiety-induced overgeneralization takes practice, but it teaches you to become your own advocate and not let anxiety run the show.
Utilize the word “Yet”: Another way to reduce overgeneralizing is to utilize one simple word that can help you significantly improve your state of mind: “YET”.
“Okay, so maybe I wasn’t great at that speech. It doesn’t mean I’m never going to be able to give a speech, it just means that I’m not proficient at it YET.”
This “magic word” can be so helpful with kids because they tend to be masters of over-generalizing. Their developing brains don’t yet know how to understand nuances so if they fail at one thing they can easily go all the way down the rabbit hole to the detrimental belief that “I’m just a failure.” Softly reminding them that maybe they just don’t have this skill mastered “YET” can provide a huge mindset shift for them as they learn and grow.
Anxiety is, overall, a common but highly treatable mental condition. If you’d like more support to work through disruptive anxiety, take our free assessment (for those located in Georgia) and we’ll help connect you to a therapist who can help you identify and reduce your anxiety . Decreased anxiety = greater peace. We’re here to help.