We have many internal and external resources available to us when anxiety becomes overwhelming. We can typically recognize an unhelpful anxious thought because it often starts with some variation of “What if…” and or is predicting negative events that are possible but incredibly unlikely. In this post, I will briefly outline some of the internal and external resources that can be extremely effective in confronting and managing anxiety.
1) Talking back to and Challenging Anxious Thoughts:
Anxiety is like an annoying know-it-all and overly critical boss; it constantly points out what might go wrong or what it thinks you didn’t do right, and it is usually flat out wrong! When we talk back to or challenge anxious thoughts with phrases like, “I’m allowed to make mistakes!” or “I’m enough as I am!” and “You don’t know everything!” we are bossing back our anxiety and taking charge.
2) Past Successes:
What difficulties have you overcome in the past? How did you do that? What did you learn about yourself? Anxiety likes to make us forget or discount all the challenges we have overcome in the past. But, as we stack up our past successes, we are reminded of just how capable we really are, no matter what anxiety says.
3) Problem Solving Skills, Creativity/Imagination:
Clearly you have gotten yourself this far in life, which means you have solved literally thousands of problems. Life throws curve balls at us regularly, and it is our creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills that help us work through them. When anxiety says things like, “What if you get sick?” We can say back to anxiety, “Then I will rest, get lots of fluids and take care of myself. I know what to do when I am sick.”
Some problems and concerns are outside of our experience and skill set to solve. Who do you have in your life that you could go to for help? Make a list of people in each arena of your life that you feel comfortable approaching and asking for help. For example, who at work can help you when you have questions or problems? When you are at school, who is most likely to have the information you need? Our external resources include people in our support systems, people who know us and care about our well-being and are invested in our success: parents, teachers, friends, family members, coaches and teammates, therapists etc.
When anxious thoughts and feelings begin to escalate, start by recognizing these feelings for what they are, ANXIETY, and then access your internal and external resources to challenge and talk back to your anxiety.
Running a social skills group for kids ages 7-11 has taught
me a lot about the benefits of flexible thinking. Flexible thinking in kids
produces turn taking, transitioning smoothly to new activities, and the ability
to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations.
Flexible thinking in adults also enables mental, emotional,
and behavioral adaptability. It is the ability to consider situations from
multiple perspectives, include context clues to inform decision making, manage
rising emotional responses in appropriate ways, problem solve, and balance and
prioritize competing desires and goals. Flexible thinking also allows for
spontaneity in our romantic relationships that can increase excitement and
Flexible thinking looks like letting someone else pick the
restaurant for dinner, cancelling plans to be with a friend or spouse who’s had
a difficult day, finding solutions to problems instead of ruminating on the
endless escalating spiral of “what if…” scenarios, truly listening to
understand what others are saying, and not telling your boss what you really
think of them when they take credit for your work during the company meeting.
Inflexible or rigid thinking in adults is often manifest in
all or nothing (Black and White) perspectives and doesn’t allow for nuances and
mitigating circumstances. Doing something because, “That’s how we have always
done it” is an example of rigid thinking. Other examples include not listening
to other’s ideas, struggling to consider the feelings and experiences of
others, and obliviousness to opportunities around us because we are locked into
our self-appointed expectations, rules or ideas about how something is
“supposed to be.”
There is a popular Huffington
Post article (“Reasons my
son is crying will crack you up!”) that is unknowingly
highlighting inflexible and rigid thinking. In each of these pictures, the
child is having an emotional meltdown because they are stuck on one thought and
the associated feeling so deeply, they become overwhelmed, abandon all reason
and rebuff efforts to console them; for example, “He wouldn’t fit through the
doggy door. Note the open-door right beside him.” With toddlers and adults
alike, inflexible thinking can lead to unhelpful and stressful situations.
As a caution, let’s be clear that not all rigid thinking is
unhelpful. There are areas in life that being inflexible is necessary and
protective. With regards to physical safety and personal and emotional
boundaries, it is advantageous to be rigid.
We all have times where we utilize both flexible and rigid
thinking, the important part is to identify where we, as adults, teens or kids,
could benefit from more flexible thinking.
Is there an issue with your friends or spouse
that keeps coming up, how could you change your perspective or response in the
situation to increase connection with that person?
What could be a different way to address the
issue? What about that issue is the real problem?
Could any of these same questions be applied to
work relationships and circumstances?
You need to be a pipe cleaner.
Here is a visual way to conceptualize flexible thinking. During
one of my first weeks running the aforementioned social skills group I came
across an activity highlighting the importance of and difference between
flexible and rigid thinking using a popsicle stick, a pipe cleaner and a piece
A popsicle stick is sturdy but rigid. Attempts
to bend the popsicle stick typically result in it breaking. Not helpful.
Pipe cleaners are soft and fuzzy on the outside,
come in multiple colors, bend easily, hold their shape and have sturdy wire in
the middle: the creative options are endless. They are so adaptable they can
bend to whatever the situation requires while maintaining their inner core
(read: personal values and goals).
A piece of yarn can barely hold any shape at
all, it’s too flexible. It can’t stand up for itself or hold a boundary and can
be easily manipulated with no resistance.
Thinking like a pipe cleaner allows flexibility, adjusting,
shifting, adapting and changing as needed without compromising our values. What
areas in your life are you like a pipe cleaner? Are there some relationships,
situations or events where you are more like a popsicle stick? Which of these
scenarios or people would benefit from you being more like a pipe cleaner?
Look for Flexible Thinking Part 2: Mental Health, where I
will review how flexible thinking impacts and effects our mental health.
Dr. John Gottman, Author of “7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.”, wrote about what he calls the “4 horseman of the apocalypse”. He outlined how, if unaddressed, these behaviors can erode trust and security in a relationship. Look out for them in your communications.
Blame/Criticism– Blame and criticism increase defensiveness and derail problem solving.
Contempt– Use non-judgmental language. Contemptuous language like, “You’re so lazy! You never empty the dishwasher” will get you nowhere fast. Try instead, “I feel frustrated that I am emptying the dishwasher so frequently. I would like us to share this responsibility” The latter is a reasonable request. Try to label the behavior rather than the person.
Defensiveness– Defensiveness is usually a response to feeling blamed or criticized. Take ownership for what part you played in the situation and be open to hearing the reasonable request. Acknowledge what the other person is saying and the feelings they are expressing (validate where they are coming from). Address their request/concern rather than justify your behavior.
Stonewalling– Stonewalling is refusing to participate fully in the conversation or avoiding the discomfort. Instead, commit to hearing the person out. Stonewalling means you will never hear their reasonable request and therefore not be able to problem solve. If you feel overwhelmed, ask to pause the conversation for a short period of time and commit to returning when you are calmer.
For more information check out the link below or any of John Gottman’s books.
Let’s face it – life is not easy!!! We all face an onslaught of daily challenges that can tax us to the limit. Whether you’re a student struggling to balance an academic load while trying to figure out how to maintain some semblance of a social life and simultaneously coming up with the financial resources to pay for that advanced education or if you’re an empty nester struggling to find your sense of identity now that you are no longer known as “Tommy’s mom,” life is fraught with challenge (and these are just a two of the vast number of possible scenarios that you may be facing!!)
As daunting as all this difficulty may be, there is very good news: it is through facing these very challenges that we grow; these challenges are the very opportunities that grant us the knowledge, experience, maturity and wisdom that makes life meaningful. They deepen us as individuals and broaden our perspective – IF we can effectively rise to the occasion.
Here are a few more tips for handling anger. As mentioned, process and handle your anger, don’t discount it and push it away.
Try deep breathing exercises.
Repeat a phrase to relax your self like ‘take it easy’ or ‘you’re ok’ to calm yourself down.
Use imagery and go to your ‘happy or quiet place’
Change the way you think.
Be more rational – “It’s the end of the world” can change to “It’s frustrating but understandable. It’s not the end of the world and overreacting never really fixes anything.”
Avoid phrases that start or end with never, always, or demand.
Logic can defeat your anger.
Not all anger is displaced.
Don’t focus on the solution, focus on the process.
Don’t act on your conclusions – they might be wrong. Clarify what’s going on by asking and using a conversation.
Listen to what’s going on.
Try not to fight back
Humor can diffuse rage quickly.
Change the Environment
Give yourself a break!
Don’t avoid confrontation but don’t put yourself in frustrating situations either.
Use Appropriate Timing for Conversations
Typically places like in front of the TV or when people are busy aren’t ideal conversation places.
If you have a confrontation situation then try planning a better place to talk where you can both focus on yourself.
Learn Assertiveness Training
Take a class on being more assertive rather than confrontational.
See a counselor for assertiveness training.
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