Part Three: Proactive Tools for Anxiety
In the last two articles, we talked about the physiological chain reaction that occurs with anxiety and some of the reactive tools that we can employ to mitigate the escalation of anxiety at a physiological level and keep that anxiety from building or culminating into a full-blown panic attack. In this article, we are going to discuss how we go about keeping the anxiety from ever manifesting in the first place.
Principles of Proactive Tools
The primary goal with proactive tools is to intervene at the source of the anxiety where it is originating. As we alluded to in the previous articles about anxiety, most anxiety is originating at the cognitive level. By this, we mean, that it starts with our thinking, perceptions, and interpretations. When we arrive at conclusions that are anxiety-provoking interpretations, this triggers the emotions of anxiety, and from there activates a physiological response and drives our behaviors. When we teach people how to control and check their thinking and conclusions, they end up of having far less anxiety over time.
The Brain is a Noisy Place
Most people will agree that our minds are filled with a running stream of consciousness that some of us refer to as our inner dialogue. Most people feel like they are simply along for the ride when it comes to their thinking. The brain just seems to go where it wants. Because the world is a bright and colorful place and there are lots of things to look at and listen to, most of our attention is outwardly focused into our environment. Additionally, many people find that inner dialogue that never stops talking a bit of an irritant and consequently a lot of people get really good at tuning out that inner voice. The problem is that the inner voice is still talking and affecting our emotions and behaviors, even though it is now unbeknownst to us. The principles of proactive tools come out of the work of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which has been proven over and over to be one of the most effective tools in dealing with anxiety. Rather than tuning out that inner voice, we teach people how to tune in to it, and actually quiet and control that voice. Rather than being adrift on the sea of random thoughts, we teach people how to install a rudder and wheel so that you can steer your thinking in the direction you want it to go. We teach you how to sail your ship into calmer waters and get away from the turbulent waves of anxiety and get your brain working for you rather than against you.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Stemming out of the work of psychologists Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, cognitive behavioral therapy is focused on teaching people to examine and analyze their own thinking and look for distortions and erroneous conclusions that they may be coming to and challenging and correcting their thinking in order to reduce their resulting anxiety, depression, anger, or any other negative emotion or behavior that results. Our brains are filled with tens of thousands of beliefs and many of them serve us quite well. It is likely that most believe that touching a hot oven will result in getting burned. This is a darn good belief to have because it is true and accurate, and we can back it up with all kinds of evidence. These sorts of beliefs we want to leave alone. The beliefs we want to start looking at are ones that may not be serving us well and maybe driving our anxiety.
Let’s look at an example of distorted thinking, beliefs, or conclusions that can cause anxiety by looking at the ABC’s. ‘A’ is the activating event. ‘C’ is a consequential feeling or behavior (anxiety). Let’s imagine that Bill feels a pain in his leg (activating event) and he begins to panic (consequential feeling of anxiety). You could also think of this as action and reaction, which is how most people live out their lives, not giving things a whole of thought. Now ‘B’ stands for the belief. If we probe into Bill’s mind, let’s say we discover that he concluded (believed) that from that pain in his leg that he must surely have bone cancer. Suddenly, it is not hard to see why he panicked based on the conclusion that he came to. In fact, there is a warped logic when you stack up A, B, and C. If any of us were to come to a similar conclusion, we would likely panic too. Capturing our beliefs through this process sets the stage for the next step, which is analysis.
Once we figure out what we were thinking or believing about a particular activating event, we can examine that belief for accuracy and validity. In Bill’s case, we would likely be challenging his thinking and asking him for proof and evidence to support his conclusion. We might talk with him about his age, family history, and about odds and probability. Although it’s conceivable he could have bone cancer, most people would not take that bet. We essentially begin to push back on Bill’s thinking and conclusions and help him to challenge his own thought process so that he does not need to have a panic attack every time he feels a twinge in his leg, thereby getting rid of the anxiety that was being driven by erroneous conclusions.
Themes, Patterns, and Core Beliefs
In therapy when we are working with clients, we look for themes and patterns that ultimately lead us to a set of core beliefs. As we teach them how to tune into their anxiety, they get better and better at following the anxiety back to an activating event and ultimately start figuring out their beliefs and conclusions. Collecting data over and over usually starts to reveal some themes and patterns in the beliefs and conclusions behind the anxiety. Most people have somewhere between 2 and 5 core beliefs that are driving upwards of 80-90% of their anxiety. At the same time, they are practicing analyzing and challenging their thinking and cleaning up inaccuracies. In time, they are able to catch things quicker and quicker and eventually get their thinking to go down a healthier, cleaner, and more logical route that no longer results in anxiety. This is a somewhat oversimplified snapshot of what goes into cognitive behavioral therapy. There are several layers to CBT and a variety of tools along the way to help. Working with a good therapist is often instrumental in picking up the concepts and having an objective partner to help you see some of the distortions is extremely helpful. Remember the old saying, you can’t see the forest for the tree. Often, it’s hard for us to see our own issues and thinking, and having a therapist there to let us step back and analyze things really speeds up the process.
If you have anxiety and are interested in talking with one of our psychologists or psychiatrists about treatment options, please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.
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