I like to credit myself as a decently optimistic person — I always think traffic will take approximately 20 minutes less than it usually does, truly believe I will be rich and famous one day, and never see the killer coming in horror movies. But, when it comes to my health, I’ve always had a creeping anxiety and worry in the back of my head that would sometimes stop me from living my life, or feel so painful I wouldn’t know how to react. Recently, since graduating college and getting my membership card to the adult club, that “sometimes” became more and more frequent.
I knew I simply needed to take action. The therapy I’ve tried in the past hasn’t always helped long-term, and books my mom has gotten for me have been insightful and interesting, but have felt hopeless at times — the approaches just weren’t right for me. Finally, I found a therapist that has turned out to be, well, life-changing — she’s realistic, understanding, and all about concrete changes, rather than just talking through a situation. While my mental health is a long rope I’m still climbing to get to the top of (like in those horrible middle school gym classes), my anxiety has been much more manageable, understandable, and better yet, hopeful. Read on for five things my therapist taught me that actually helped my anxiety:
1. Don’t judge your thoughts or behaviors, but notice them.
When I first came to my therapist, I told her about my health anxiety, but prefaced it by saying that I realize it’s “illogical” and “a little crazy.” I also told her behaviors like how I can’t fall asleep without TV, but I had to mention that “I know it’s bad for me.” The first thing she made me realize was that I was judging my anxiety. I was trying to push away emotions or put down certain behaviors, believing they were bad. But labeling emotions or behaviors as “bad” and “illogical” wasn’t helping me confront my actual anxiety, and instead, made it worse.
My first assignment was to write down every anxious thought or every time I looked up a symptom on Web MD. Tracking my anxiety not only helped me notice patterns that I hadn’t seen before, and realize that I was feeling anxiety so much more often than I thought. However, not judging the anxiety or the frequency I was feeling it helped it subside — it’s just like when someone says, “you need to relax,” the last thing that makes you do is relax, right? Without knowing it, I was fueling my anxiety, letting the stress of feeling anxious actually cause more. Now, I take notice of any negative thoughts and how they affect my behavior, but don’t judge them.
2. Only focus on the facts.
One of my biggest issues is worry — my “worry” can seem almost crippling at times, causing me to jump to long-shot conclusions and worst-case-scenarios. If my mom’s not calling me back, I worry something bad happened; or if I have a horrible headache, I worry it’s a brain tumor. This has been a hard anxiety to reason myself out of — the worries themselves are built around the “but, what if…” scenario that all the unlikely statistics in the world could not reason me out of.
My therapist’s answer to this was simple: you can’t tell yourself something is not going to happen because so many things in life are uncertain. Something in the back of my mind knew exactly that when I’d try to tell myself “I’m probably just dehydrated,” or “it’s statistically very unlikely that something’s wrong with me.” I couldn’t trick my mind — uncertainty was causing the worry, and trying to convince myself it was certain didn’t help. Instead, my therapist told me to focus on what I do know for certain: I know I have a headache. I know I can take Advil to help it. People without anxiety are able to stop there, see only the facts without the worst-case-scenarios. So instead of trying to reason myself out of a worry, I focus on the facts, which will usually make me realize that my anxiety is causing the “what ifs.”
You can’t tell yourself something is not going to happen because so many things in life are uncertain.
3. There’s a difference between pain and suffering.
“Catastrophizing” is a mental health buzzword, and what I was certainly guilty of. It’s basically irrational and exaggerated pattern of thought, or as I unprofessionally and lovingly like to explain it as, making a mountain out of a molehill. I would often change my behavior or lifestyle around certain physical symptoms, making them bigger than they were. For example, I got into patterns based around my discomfort with horrible periods — days before Aunt Flo came, I would cancel social plans and stop going to my regular workout classes just in case it came and I got cramps. The horrible cramps are actual pain, but changing my lifestyle in anticipation is just suffering.
Physical pain has distinct and biological components — it’s what we cannot control. We’re going to go through heartbreaks, bad things might happen, and we’re going to get headaches, period cramps, or worse. But suffering is the meaning we give to that pain and how it affects our lives — it’s what we actually do have control over. Thoughts such as, “why does this happen to me!?” or “I can’t stand it!” are the suffering. Maybe I have no control over my period cramps or the moments of pain we go through as humans — but I do control the way my brain interprets that pain, and how I change my life around it.
Now, I try to differentiate my pain from suffering, and realize I do not have to be going through a lot of the self-punishing behaviors I do. I take action to help the pain (i.e. take ibuprofen, use a heating pad), and try not to feed the behaviors that fuel suffering (like changing my lifestyle or feeling bad for myself).
4. Behaviors, emotions, and anxiety all affect one another
During the first few sessions, we were in the phases of trying to understand my anxiety on the most technical, psychological level. My therapist showed me the “Cognitive-Behavioral Triangle,” which portrays a very easy-to-understand diagram, showing how each point of the triangle connects to all the other points (you took elementary geometry, right?). Thoughts, emotions, and behavior took up each of the points, and she explained that how we think affects how we feel, which affects what we do. This is why anxiety can cause certain behaviors (like googling symptoms, a common past time of mine).
I know you’re probably thinking duh! right about now, but this pattern can work in reverse too — certain behaviors will affect thoughts and feelings. She gave me physical actions I can do to change how my brain is working — breathing techniques or relaxing my shoulders are ways that the body signals to the brain that everything is fine, calming anxiety. Seriously. Sometimes, the mind can be hard to control (when I’m having a panic attack, I cannot reason myself out of it), so starting with the physical will bring anxiety down, since behavior causes thoughts and feelings, and feelings can cause thoughts and behavior. Working on changing one point of the triangle will change the others.
Why aren’t you focusing on enjoying the moment rather than just getting through it?
5. Don’t just think about how to get through a situation, think about how to enjoy it.
If you can’t already tell, I’ve had multiple eye-opening revelations with my supportive and smart therapist. One of the most, however, is the way in which I view my anxiety’s effect on my life. Being in a situation I know would bring up anxiety, like being out late with friends (I like to get up early in the morning), or going on a long car trip with my family (what if we get into a car accident!?), I would focus on just surviving the situation. It kept my anxiety from going into high-level anxiety or panic attack mode, but it kept it at a steady anxious state, instead of relieving negative feelings altogether.
I was describing one of these said situations and how I was reacting to it (I’ve had enough therapy sessions to know the lingo!), and she answered with “but, why aren’t you focusing on enjoying the moment rather than just getting through it?” Optimism and mindfulness is a tale as old as time, but I never associated enjoyment as a cure for anxiety. Now, whenever I’m starting to feel anxious or going into a situation I know brings on anxiety, I don’t just worry about getting through it — I focus on enjoying it. After all, what’s life for, if it’s not meant to be genuinely enjoyed? Sometimes, laughter really is the best medicine — as long as it’s suffering, worry, and judgement-free.