In difficult times, when you’re—stuck in a problem, experiencing anxiety, and couldn’t come up with possible solutions—you may ask “What is wrong with me.” If your objective is to understand yourself better, identify what’s keeping you stuck, and target areas that you may improve—then the question needs more specificity. It must target your behaviors (“what behaviors keep me stuck?”) and thoughts (“what thoughts intensifies my anxiety”), instead of your own identity (e.g. “Maybe something is wrong with me”). The more you highlight specific behaviors that keep you stuck, the more options you will have to resolve your emotional conflicts and help cope anxiety.
Evaluate What Makes You Vulnerable to Anxiety
When you respond to a difficult situation in an undesirable way (e.g. storming off the meeting room), it is essential to understand what made you vulnerable to do so. By asking “What made me vulnerable to respond that way?” you may attain clarity on the factors that are involved behind making you anxious. For example: You got angry at your colleague because you have been experiencing personal conflicts in your family. It makes sense why you’d be vulnerable and respond impulsively.
Track Your Judgements That Make It Difficult To Cope With Anxiety
What’s so bad about judgements is that they trigger emotional pain and makes it difficult to cope with anxiety. Only when you identify the underlying judgement that you are passing to yourself, can you proceed towards taking action to reduce your anxiety.
The first step is to consider a situation, and note the emotion followed by it. Is it anger? Frustration? Hurt? Next, address or write down the judgement that has resulted from these emotions. For example, you were driving and got stuck behind a really slow truck. You are now frustrated and your first judgement is “This guy certainly doesn’t know how to drive.” Now you’re angry (the emotion after judgement) and the outcome wasn’t quite positive.
Notice what emotion does your judgement evokes and the outcome that it brings you? Is it a positive outcome or a negative? What consequences do you have to face? What consequences would you rather desire to have?
In the first instance, it could be difficult to believe that judgements play any role in how intense your emotions could grow. One way to experiment it is—think about a judgement that you may have made recently, perhaps yesterday or last week. “I’m a bad mother” “People don’t like me” “I may never succeed in achieving my goals.”
Now really focus on these judgements. As you do this, make a mental note of what you’re experiencing. This exercise not only helps you notice the difference that a single judgement could make, but also offers you the validation that you need to make behavioral changes for achieving your desired objective in life.
Explore Behavioral Choices To Cope With Anxiety
Evaluate how the existing behaviors serve you. Ask yourself “What are the short term and long-term consequences of those behaviors?” “Are there any triggers or prompts that has led me to certain behaviors?”
When looking at the consequences, remember to focus on the positive consequences. Many clients in therapy tend to focus on the negative outcomes of their behavior. This seldom gives them an idea of behavioral choices to enhance positive outcomes. On the other hand, when you look at the positive consequences—it helps you develop more insights and awareness into why you continue to engage in the behavior despite the harm that it does.
Then, move towards the drawing solutions—by asking. “Is there something that I can do to correct the negative outcome?” “What can I do next time to make myself less vulnerable?” “What skills may I incorporate the next time to tweak the outcome?”
This may also involve targeting behaviors that are actually helping you and increasing their frequency: those that lead you to favourable outcomes (e.g. occasional meditation, maintaining a work-life balance, or switching off your phone late night), and those that reduce the negative impact of an unhelpful behavior (e.g. allowing yourself to cry instead of bottling up emotions).
What To Do When You Couldn’t Decide Which Behavior to Adopt Or Let go?
When you’re ambivalent about giving up a behavior, you might ask yourself, “What are the benefits and costs of not engaging a behavior?” “What will happen if I don’t resort to engaging in a behavior?” “What is the cost of running away?”
Note down two or three costs and benefits on each sides and rate them on a scale of 1 (low importance) to five (high importance). By assigning a numerical value instead of counting the number of costs and benefits, you attain a better clarity of behaviors that you may avoid or approach.
Remember to Validate Your Anxious Thoughts or Responses
It is important to note that mapping out your anxiety-based responses could be distressing, as it generally is for many clients. Thus, remember to validate yourself by reminding that—your behavioral responses makes sense. “What I did in that instance made sense since….” Or “Ofcourse I would respond that way in such a situation where..” Know that it is less about judging whether your responses were right or wrong. It is more about balancing between encouraging yourself to make a change and accepting your feelings and thoughts through validation. One cannot exist without the other.
For example: John says to his therapist, “I don’t understand why I keep overthinking about little things, especially when I’m in social situations when I know its not solving my problems.” The therapist validates his feelings instead of pushing him to change his behavior—“Ofcourse you’d be overthinking. Even though you know that its not healthy, its the way you have learned to cope with difficult situations and process your emotions.This means that you have to help yourself and gradually learn to incorporate behaviors that will help you process situations in an adaptive manner.”
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.