Some days everything seems to be outside your comfort zone. A bit of anxiety is part of the modern world. Worry about that presentation at work, worry about the kids at home, worry about what’s on the news… worry, worry worry.
Worst-case scenarios ping pong around in the echo chamber of your skull. Your brain is like a close friend who keeps trying to kill you. You can try to think your way out of this but, if you’re an anxious person, well, thinking probably hasn’t worked out all that well for you. You want to repeatedly jab at the Flight Attendant Call Button of Life – help, please.
Maybe you think McGruff the Crime Dog couldn’t solve this one. But there is a solution…
Back in the 1950’s, the great Albert Ellis created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) which helped spawn Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), along with a slew of other acronyms. Plain and simple, most studies show these to be the most effective anxiety treatments available.
And far from being complex, the basics of REBT are exceedingly simple to grasp. (Amazingly, you could even cover the fundamentals in one blog post.)
Albert Ellis’ book is “How To Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You.”
Let’s get to it…
We often mistakenly believe that problems cause bad feelings. That adversity (A) leads to consequences (C). Someone sticks a gun in your face and you get scared. A = C.
But what if you realize it’s just a water gun? You’re not scared anymore. Nothing about the situation changed. Only your beliefs. So we need to adjust our formula and stick a B in there:
Adversity + Beliefs = Consequences.
It’s not the adversity that causes your feelings; it’s your beliefs about the adversity. Do you think they’re life threatening or trivial? Likely or unlikely? Public speaking, job interviews, heights, spiders – it’s not the thing itself, it’s our beliefs about them. And often our beliefs are irrational, making no concessions to common sense.
Simply put: change the irrational beliefs to rational ones and you usually change your feelings for the better.
Whenever you feel anxious, play a little game: Find the irrational belief. It can be tricky at first because you probably take them for granted. But they usually come in the form of absolutistic musts, shoulds, oughts, and other demands:
All of these beliefs are impossible to guarantee and irrational. And you can live a good life without any of them. But they undergird many of our concerns and they’re what drives us nuts.
That’s ABC. But don’t worry, there’s another letter. And a solution…
“D” is for dispute. Dispute those irrational beliefs.
“If I don’t perform well during this presentation my career will be over.”
Is that likely? Is that the most common result? How many times have you seen that happen? (Hyperbole is the worst thing in the universe.) It’s irrational.
“If I get in the ocean, I could be eaten by a shark!” Really? There are a lot more people eating sharks today than there are sharks eating people.
Question the rationality of your underlying beliefs. This isn’t blind optimism; it’s playing the odds. If someone else was doing public speaking, what result would you bet $1000 on as being most likely? “They’ll probably do fine, and if they screw up, it’s not a big deal. That’s what I’d bet a grand on.”
Okay, next letter…
“E” is for your new “Effective Philosophy.” Turn those “musts” and demands into realistic preferences. Believe “I absolutely must do well during this presentation or my life is over” and you’re anxious. Believe “I’d like to do well but if I don’t it almost certainly won’t be that big a deal” and the emotions dial down.
It’s not a cope; it’s realism. Yeah, you could screw up but it won’t kill you or end your career. You’ve made mistakes before and they didn’t result in global catastrophe. And if you calm down and work hard it’s very likely you won’t mess up at all.
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So we’re done? Eh, not really. As experience has taught you, the brain has this wonderful Teflon-like ability to resist new ideas. When anxiety strikes, your mind is going to say, “Nice try, Barker, but my feelings don’t care about your facts.”
So we have to take it to the next level…
We need to feel the difference for it to stick.
Sit down. Close your eyes. Yes, you’re going to think about the thing you don’t want to think about. (It’s okay if you hate me for making you do this. Much like at the gym, if you don’t feel the desire to punch your personal trainer now and then, they’re probably not pushing you hard enough.)
Think about the source of your anxiety. Public speaking, first date, whatever. Ratchet up the realism. Get it playing in 4K UHD in your mind’s eye, digitally remastered in high fidelity.
Imagine the worst-case scenario. Get it worked up to its full demonic potential where your fear mounts in concentric circles. “I’ll visibly pee myself in the middle of the presentation. It will be captured on YouTube. It’ll trend on Twitter. I’ll be the anxiety meme of choice for all of social media.”
Okay, in the midst of this blazing psychic struggle, ask yourself: How likely is that? How rational? To be concrete, how many times has something like this happened before?
Is that belief feeling rational – or ridiculous? Exactly. Now change your irrational demands to healthy preferences.
“I must do well” becomes “I’d prefer to do well, but it’ll be okay if I don’t.”
The downside isn’t as bad as you think and even that result is unlikely. You deal with things that have worse downsides — more common downsides – all the time, and you don’t freak out about them. This isn’t that scary. (Hearing a surgeon say, “Oops” – that’s scary.) Heck, even if things go wrong the most likely result is you’re going to have a new funny story to tell.
Keep disputing. Your feelings will move from devastation to mere disappointment. Repeat this exercise a few minutes every day for a week and you’ll get to calm more quickly each time.
Does repeating this every day sound horrible? Well, then you’re really really really not going to like this next part. But it’s essential…
You’re going to want to avoid whatever makes you anxious. Why? Because it feels better. Something scares you? Cancel it. Reschedule. Fake your own death.
But avoidance is, at best, a combover for your anxiety. In fact, it usually makes things worse. Avoidance is like some terrible gain-of-function experiment. It gives anxiety a gym where it can do bench presses. Deadlifts. Oh wait, now it’s taking MMA classes too…
Avoid and you’ll want to avoid more and more. Avoid public speaking and you find prepping for public speaking scary. And then you find even thinking about it scary. Eventually your world shrinks until you only feel safe while sitting alone in the pain cave of your house with the lights off.
To beat anxiety, you must face it. Yes, the last thing on earth that you want to do is what you must do. Sorry. ABCDE is great but to get it to truly cross the blood-brain barrier you gotta face it in the coliseum. This is called exposure.
Famed behaviorist John B. Watson took kids who were scared of animals and put them in a room with, yes, animals. No, this was not child abuse. And the kids would have to sit there in the same room with what scared them. After some time he’d move the animal closer to them. As time passed, he’d move the animal even closer. And closer. You know what happened?
In twenty minutes the kids were petting the animals. Yes, they usually lost their fear in one session. Often in twenty minutes. And that’s what you want to do.
Inch yourself closer and closer to whatever it is that scares you. For our public speaking scenario, go to the room where you’ll be presenting and get comfortable there. Maybe do a dry run with a friend. Then two friends. Work your way up.
Eventually, it will be game day. Yes, you may hear the “Jaws” soundtrack playing in the background. And as you get started the clown car of anxiety will pull up. Your brain may throw off sparks as you feel the need to scream like that Edward Munch painting.
Remind yourself of your new Effective Philosophy. Dispute those beliefs. They’re not accurate. This may feel like a life-threatening amount of cognitive dissonance…
But look around. Is this the end of the world? If it is, it’s a lot duller than you expected. It’s not that bad. The oracular power of your old belief was overrated. Your new beliefs are more accurate.
But what if it doesn’t go well? Did you die? Is your embarrassment trending on Twitter? Did your worst-case scenario prove true? I doubt it. As William Deresiewicz once said, “The best reason to fail is to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world.”
Keep exposing yourself. (No, don’t take your clothes off.) With practice the anxiety will fade. You will develop an iridescent indifference to what plagued you – as you have to so many things in the past.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round everything up and get the final bit of advice on anxiety – the one that’s my favorite…
Here’s how to overcome anxiety and fear:
In the short term, the discomfort of anxiety is horrible. But in the long term it’s even worse. Nothing in life besides talking about Bitcoin wastes as many hours and causes as many problems as worrying about things that will likely never happen. Anxiety is a terrible way to live and leads to spiritual scurvy.
Your fear? It’s funny.
It is. Really. Shut up. It is.
You know that irrational belief isn’t accurate. Just another error of your so-called mind. Laugh at it. Taking it so seriously is what leads to those exaggerated feelings. This isn’t just me speculating; Ellis wrote about the power of humor. It gives you emotional distance. It punctures your crazed thinking and allows you to evaluate it, learn from it and develop a more realistic perspective.
I must do well. People must treat me well. The world must give me what I want.
Seeing the silliness in these grandiose notions is humbling. It’s funny – but it’s not tragic. Because you can change them.
How many things were you afraid of as a kid that you don’t worry about anymore? You’ve learned and grown — and you will continue to. It’s revealing to think back about how far you’ve already come.
Fears can so fill our brains that you might think if you removed them your head would cave in. No, removing them just makes more room for the good things in life. Instead of your world shrinking from avoidance, it will bloom with possibilities. So laugh.
No, I don’t have the irrational belief that you must laugh…
But I’d prefer it.