Let me give you a little background before you scroll right to the good stuff.
Anxiety is actually your body trying to keep you safe. Hear me out. The same system that will signal your body to automatically step out of the way of a moving vehicle is the same system that worries about getting to your destination on time, how your performance review will go, or what your friends think of you. It is a sensitive alarm that is triggered any time your nervous system senses danger- whether it be physical, emotional, or psychological harm. (Fun fact: your body ranks social judgment just as dangerous as bodily harm. This is how important relationships are!)
So, when your body suspects something could hurt you in some way, its job is to warn you and prepare you to survive that threat. Anxiety’s favourite survival tactic is flight, which looks like avoidance. This is why you might notice a combination of physical sensations (increased heart rate, tension, loss of appetite, disturbed sleep, etc.) and cognitive symptoms (racing thoughts, worst-case-scenario thinking, frantic problem solving). Together, your system is trying to protect you by avoiding the dangerous scenarios.
Note: anxiety is a mental health concern when it is disproportionate to the actual threat. For example, a panic attack due to public speaking is a disproportionate fear response because this scenario is not truly life-threatening (unless, for example, you’ve been attacked by a jungle cat or booed off the stage while giving a speech. In that case, yeah- public speaking has been traumatic for you and it makes sense you would avoid it).
The skill I want to share with you aims to settle the cognitive part of anxiety. PLEASE NOTE that it is more effective to focus on bodily sensations first. Anxiety is a primitive nervous system response and will over-ride logic and reason, so please visit my post here to learn how to regulate your nervous system in the face of anxiety. For those of you looking for a cognitive skill to help with your anxious thoughts, this skill is for you. I suggest using it in combination with a body-based skill.
Anxiety’s script sounds like “what if ____.” What if people think I sound stupid? What if I get fired? What if my partner leaves me? What if I get sick? Does this script sound familiar? Anxiety loves to try fortune-telling, and is often pretty inaccurate. With true anxiety, we are assuming a worst-case scenario that will never occur because a number of things have to go exactly wrong, and the odds of that happening are pretty slim. Your nervous system doesn’t give a $#%& about those odds. It’s job is to keep you alive, not happy. Rude, but effective.
Here's what you’ve been waiting for, folks! The statement that can help stop anxiety in its tracks. It goes like this:
“I need more information.”
Recall that anxiety likes to assume that something really bad is going to happen and that outcome is highly unlikely. (Recall also that anxiety is a disproportionate reaction. If you are about to fall off a cliff, you don’t need more information. That’s just dangerous.) This skill aims to slow down the “what if” thought cycle that intensifies the anxiety response. Here’s how we would use it:
“I have a first date coming up. What if they don’t like me? What if I do something embarrassing? What if we can’t find anything to talk about? What if it’s so bad I want to leave immediately?”
I need more information.
Why waste your time imagining worst case scenarios that may not occur? You might have an awesome date. It could be one of the best conversations of your life. It could be an okay date and you both agree that it wasn’t sparky enough to see each other again. It might be awkward, but you have a great story afterward. You could make a new life-long friend. You may even meet your future partner. You need more information.
“I have to drive somewhere new. What if I get lost? What if my vehicle breaks down?” I need more information.
“I have a doctor’s appointment this week. What if ___?” I need more information.
“My partner is in a bad mood. What if they are mad at me?” I need more information.
“My kid seems to be spending more time alone lately. What if something is wrong?” I need more information.
You can try this statement out the next time you have worried thoughts come up. Once again, I recommend paring this skill with one to support the physical aspects of anxiety, and you might consider meeting with a mental health expert to explore the roots of your anxiety if this has been a consistent struggle for you.
Check out this video we love on the topic of anxiety: