Trying to get rid of all your worries is like a game of whack-a-mole. Even when you bash one down, more will pop up. Therefore, to live well with anxiety, you need a strategy other than convincing yourself that bad things won’t happen. To help you find that, here are five questions to think about and reflect on.
If you find it difficult to think of an answer immediately, revisit the question periodically until you do. You can also ask someone who knows you well if they can think of any examples from your life.
1. What are bad things that have happened to you that weren’t catastrophes?
- A car accident in which no one was hurt.
- A time when someone was mildly annoyed with you but they didn’t lose all respect for you or sever the relationship.
- A dream that didn’t come true but you found a new dream, and you don’t feel daily regret or loss about the old dream.
This exercise will help you recognize that most things that go wrong aren’t catastrophes. They might be annoying, frustrating, create extra to-dos, or hurt, but they’re not catastrophes.
2. When have you worried about a million different things, yet when something went wrong, it wasn’t something you had anticipated?
Worriers make a big effort to anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong. Yet, when things do actually go wrong, exactly what happens is often completely out of left field and unexpected. You can anticipate dozens of scenarios, yet still be surprised by a problem you hadn’t foreseen.
Try to see the funny side of this. You can use self-talk like this: “Oh brain, you spent all that time and energy worrying about X, Y, Z, and then this stupid thing happens. All that wasted anxiety! Oh, well, let’s move on and make the best of it. I can get good at rolling with the punches, if I practice it.”
3. When have you coped well with a problem you didn’t anticipate?
Sometimes anxious people hold the belief that when something goes wrong, they’ll cope better if they’ve anticipated it. However, in general, we cope just as well with problems we hadn’t anticipated.
What’s an example of when this has been true for you? Your examples from Question #2 may overlap with this one here!
4. How can you still make good decisions when your cognition is not in tip-top shape?
There are some expected scenarios when it’s hard to think at 100%. For example, if you’re arriving in a foreign country after a very long flight. Or, if you’re at the doctor’s and feeling very flustered. How can you still make good decisions in these situations?
Once you’ve thought through a few of these scenarios, you’ll probably have some good general strategies.
Examples: bringing a support person, reviewing information twice, pausing to gather your thoughts, having some water and a snack to help you think more clearly, etc. You can even write yourself a list of these strategies. In fact, it’s a good idea to do that.
Once you have a big enough basket of strategies for when your thinking is somewhat knocked off, there should be at least one in your basket that will help you in virtually any situation. You then don’t have to think through every possible situation. You’ll already have it covered.
5. Think of one of your frequent fears. If that were true, what would you still do today?
Identify the Venn diagram between what you’re doing today, and what you would do today if your fear were already true. Include the big and the small, such as going for short walks or eating your favourite food. This can help you visualize how you would cope and reassure yourself that if your fear happened, you would still be you. This exercise doesn’t work well for all fears, but it does for many.
People with anxiety ask themselves the same questions repeatedly. For example, “why do I keep repeating my mistakes, what aren’t I as amazing as so-and-so, why do I suck, how can I remove all uncertainty from life?”
When you ask yourself different questions, it can shake up your thinking, and break the stranglehold of anxiety. Give it a try and see if it works, at least a little, for you.