If you’re an anxious person—then I bet you know—how it feels to constantly worry about bad things that could happen in the future. It’s like having an alarm fixed in your head or body. It is often stuck in the “ON”position, constantly ringing and warning you of danger. In response to the anxiety alarm, you’d either avoid the situation, distract yourself, or do something to reduce the feeling of danger.
For instance, Jack, a 21 year old says, “If I feel anxious and uncomfortable, I avoid situations altogether—even though I wish that I didn’t had to.” He continues, “I also avoid feelings to protect myself from anxiety.” “I don’t know how to cope with my anxious feelings or situations that are fear inducing,” says Jack. The less he feels that he’s strong enough, the higher he evaluates the level of threat around him and runs away from it. The problem with avoidance is that you’re never able to trust your judgement or tolerate uncertainty.
Evaluate Danger In Your Head—How Big Is the Bear?
You feel more in control and certain about how to respond when you evaluate the level of danger that a situation or person brings to you.
- Ask yourself, ”How big is the bear? It is moving towards you? Is it aggressive or partly calm?
- Next, assess the possiblity of a catastrophic event in your head. Question yourself, “How likely is that bad thing going to happen in the next day, a month, or three months?” Your mind likes to indulge into fortune telling, predicting an outcome and believing it. But assessing its possibility helps you make rational choices on moving forward.
Despite all, it may be difficult to let go if your mind has locked itself onto threats. In that case, your first objective should be to reduce the emotional negative charge of your anxiety by assigning a label to your thoughts. “Oh, there’s a what-if thought. This one is a fear thought.” Then, slowly letting the less repeatitive-labelled thought to go, and addressing the most repeative ones.
Readjust the Reward Mechanism. “What Is The Cost of Running Away?”
Running away or avoiding things that you shouldn’t be—appears rewarding in the first instance—as it makes you feel safe and in control. But in the long term, it gets stressful because of the never-ending loop of anxiety.
You experience fear thinking about road accidents, thus you distract yourself with loud music. You try to avoid talking about the break-up, thus you shift the topic of discussion onto what’s going on in the other person’s life instead. Behaviors like double checking, seeking excessive reassurance, perfectionism, or rituals—-all hold patterns of avoidance. These behaviors not only keeps you from enjoying life, but also prevent you from achieving your goals, experimenting new behaviors, approaching the person you love, applying for the position, or making big decisions even if others disapprove.
The key is to switch the rewarding element of your avoidance behavior, by examining its negative consequences. Ask yourself, “What is the cost of running away?” As you examine the question, and the impact that it has in your life, you begin to explore ways to cope with the situation differently. It will help you get into the cost-analysis judgement and respond in a way that benefits you the most.
Make a list of situations when you indulge in running away/avoidance. Categorize them into specific domains, such as friendships, marriage, work, health, or social. Then, ask yourself “What negative impact does it have on my life?” Write down as many from one to five impacts. Rate each negative impact on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being worse. This will give you a picture of how your behavior is linked to the life outcomes that you may or may not want.
Explore Percent Probability—“How Likely Is It That A Feared Outcome Will Take Place?”
Find the mismatch between that worst possible outcome that you expect and the actual outcome that takes place. This will create a gap for new learning, new thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to develop.
Predict a particular outcome that could occur. Then compare it with the actual outcome that has occured. Ask yourself, “What am I most afraid of, if I don’t avoid or run away from something?” While there is no point in predicting that you will feel anxious, you must instead predict your own behavioral responses. “Oh, I’ll be so overwhelmed that I’ll forget my speech and people will laugh at me.” “At the restaurant, I might bump into my ex girlfriend and she would ignore me as if I don’t exist.” It is worthwhile to note that the prediction must not invovle how others or yourself are feeling or thinking. It must be based on observable behavioral outcomes. If possible, make a note of your predicted outcomes on a piece of paper.
Next, assess yourself, “How likely is it that the feared outcome will take place?” Add a percentage to it. “There’s an 80 percent chance that the dog I’m standing next to will bite me.” “There’s a 90 percent chance that I’ll develop a chronic illness this week.” Note that this percentage should be based on your feelings of danger and your subjective beliefs about the likelihood of a bad outcome occurring.
Evaluate the Predicted Outcome
If possible, mark down your percentage probability on the same piece of paper where you noted your predicted outcomes. This will allow you to gather evidence and test whether the actual results turn out on the same percentage probability. For each predicted outcome—ask yourself, “What was the worst-case scenario that I thought would happen?” “Did it happen? (answer in ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Put an ‘X’ if neither yes nor no).”
Furthur ask yourself, “What happened instead?”—write down a detailed list of behavioral outcomes that you or others were involved in. Again, make sure that the list is focused on ‘behaviors’ instead of yours/others ‘feelings.’ Then, write down the percentage probability of the worst-possible outcome that you now think will happen, compared to the previously marked percentage probability. It is likely that there will be a significant reduction in the number, depicting that the bear isn’t as big or as threatenig as it appeared in the first instance. To reflect on this thought, ask yourself, “What did I learn from the exposure?” “If the predicted outcome didn’t occur, what does that tell me?” “How likely does the predicted outcome seem now?”
When Should You Indulge In the Percentage Probability?
If there are things that you value but have been avoiding due to fears—for instance, trying to date someone, or applying for a desired job role—then percentage probability will help you address the gap between your expected outcome and the actual outcome.
It is also helpful if you avoid things that you believe may affect your life negatively. For instance, the fear of having panic attacks that may keep you from going out with friends. Or things that you believe are dangerous but aren’t really. Such as driving a car, or taking a walk at night. All these criteria could be a sign that it’s time for a percentage probability check.
Explore Your Willingness To Confront Anxiety—“How Willing Am I?”
Anxiety greatly involves feelings of discomfort. Often, it is natural to be unwilling to experience these feelings of discomfort. You cannot push yourself to face your fears unless you explore “How willing am I to sit with or experience discomfort?”
This question will not only encourage you to check in with yourself but also allow you to be willing to expose yourself to discomfort. It will encourage you to say “yes” to the hot flush, to the knot in your stomach, to feel unsafe, vulnerable, and weak. As you prepare to cope with your anxiety, the first question will always start with “How willing am I?” That in itself is the first step to developing healthy behavioral responses to everyday anxiety.
Sally George is a Psychologist & the Editor of Gentle Meanings. She shares thought-provoking tools, asks insightful questions, and encourages her readers to be gentle with themselves.