There are a number of strategies counselors teach clients to help them manage anxiety better. Here are just a few:
Step Back & Breathe
Retreating and regrouping is a good way to collect yourself before re-engaging. If possible, remove yourself from a situation for a short time (3-20 minutes) to give yourself space to settle for a moment. BREATHE…
The lungs are unique. While all other physiological reactions of an anxiety response are completely automatic, the lungs can be automatic or manual. For example, telling your elevated heart rate to slow down is likely not going to bring about an immediately calmer, slower heartbeat. But, by flipping the switch to manual and slowing down your breathing with deep, stomach-filling breaths, it sends a signal to the rest of the body that it doesn’t need to be on high alert, and the rest of the body responds by calming down.
You need space away from the “noise” of a situation to hear yourself think, so that you can start to ask yourself helpful questions.
It’s our pre-frontal cortex that enables us to ask reflective questions. It’s also our pre-frontal cortex that is the smarter part of our brain that we want to bring un-conscious stories into conscious awareness with.
We do this by asking ourself questions. In order to ask ourself questions and answer them, our frontal cortex has to get active and involved. Try these:
- Holy Spirit, help me identify what’s going on in my heart.
- What am I feeling?
- What are the facts? What did I see or hear immediately prior to feeling what I’m feeling?
- What might the story be that connects the facts to my feelings? What meaning did I take away?
Question Your Story
As we said before, there are an infinite number of Stories that could be told for any set of Facts. The fast, dumb part of our brain chooses the one that makes the most sense to us based on our past experiences. It then proceeds to send the messages for emotional responses consistent with that story.
If, however, there is more than one story under consideration – the brain is in a hold pattern waiting to generate an emotional response until a story is decided upon. So, if we introduce another possible story, with a different emotional significance into the mix, we effectively interrupt the emotional reaction. Here are some helpful questions:
- However remote, is it POSSIBLE there are other explanations for this situation? What might they be?
- Hypothetically speaking, why might a reasonable, rationale, and decent human being respond the way this person is?
Even if the first conclusion we jumped to is absolutely right, this exercise helps us. It gets our frontal cortex involved in a way that helps us make better decisions about how to respond to a situation.
Watching your family be murdered in front of you before having your own eyes gouged out…Now that’s a catastrophe. One hopefully none of us ever have to face. Dropping your phone in the toilet…not a catastrophe.
The labels we place on situations in our story matter. They tell our glands what kind and how intense of an emotional reaction to create. Change the label, change the emotional response.
All emotion, at its highest level of description, either feels “Good” or “Bad”. There are lots of different nuances to good and bad. There are also varying intensities. Think about it like a scale, with the best thing you can possibly imagine at one end, the worst at the other, and with lots of tick marks in-between.
The further to the right of the scale you #label a situation, the more intense negative feelings you will experience. The further to the left you label it, the less anxious you will feel about it. You get to decide. You can either let your sub-conscious slap a label on it that may or may not be helpful, or you can intervene and choose a label.
When I talk about decatastrophizing a situation, I mean identifying the intense label we have applied to a situation and choosing to replace it with a less intense label.
We don’t just want to choose a less intense label, but one that is more truthful. For example, perhaps I’m terrified of dying in a car accident. Many find death a terrible and terrifying thing. But, as a believer, I know to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. For me, death has no sting.
So death really isn’t all that terrible. In fact, it’s actually a good thing for me. Sad for those left behind, but God will look after them in my absence, just as He did in my presence. Granted, my wife will be inconsolable for the better part of a day, but then…
So in truth, for me, death is not terrible or catastrophic. To label it as such isn’t only not helpful, it’s also not true. I want to practice telling myself the truth. When I change the label, my emotions will follow.
I call this particular strategy: “Decatstrophizing the worst-case scenario.” Tring to convince myself the “terrible” thing won’t happen has only limited effectiveness. Because, in this case, dying in a car accident could happen! If my peace is based on convincing myself it can’t, I’m not living in reality. That’s denial and avoidance.
The better approach is to go with the feared outcome. Ok, so what if the thing I fear does happen? Is it really that terrible? Is a better label more fitting? Even if the situation is unlikely, I can still say, “Even if it does happen, it won’t be that bad.”
Tell Yourself the Truth
Very often our labeling of situations is not consistent with the Truth of God’s Word. Learning to identify the misbeliefs in our heart about feared situations and replace them with the truth of God’s Word is powerful. The Holy Spirit will help you, if you ask Him to, in identifying the misbeliefs that are keeping you from having peace.