Three Steps to Dealing with Anxious Thoughts
Let me set the scene: I’m sitting in a traffic jam on the highway. I notice cars quickly and narrowly changing lanes, jockeying for the quickest way to their exit. Someone angrily honks their horn. Are they honking at me? I notice I’m gripping the steering wheel and my jaw is clenched. I feel warm even though the air in the car is cool. My heart is beating a little faster than I think it should.
I take a moment to notice what I’m thinking:
“I’m going to be late and will be in trouble.”
“Someone is going to cause an accident.”
“Even if I stay in my lane, another car is going to hit me.”
I realize that the physical act of sitting in a traffic jam is not harmful to me, but my thoughts about my situation are what makes me nervous. When I look around I notice that the drivers around me are actually driving safely. People are using their turn signals, letting others into the lanes they need, and leaving a safe amount of space between cars. Why didn’t I notice that earlier, before my anxiety started to bother me?
At its heart, anxiety comes down to the body’s way to keeping us alert and safe. Frustratingly, the body can send out those signals even in the absence of any threat. Here are three questions to ask yourself to help figure out the difference between helpful anxiety and unhelpful anxiety.
- “Am I worried about something that’s actually going to hurt me?” Anxiety can often flare up in the absence of a real threat. As I’m sitting in my car in a traffic jam, I notice that all of the cars are moving slowly. Even if one were to hit me, the strong body of my car would keep me safe, as it’s designed to do. Sure, it might be quite a jolt and would scare me, but the chance of being gravely injured may actually be quite low.
- “What are the odds that my fear will come true?” Because anxiety tries to protect us, its job is to make us hyper-aware of things that could hurt us. Once we take a closer look, we might realize that many of the things that make us anxious are unlikely to happen. If I’m feeling anxious about being in a traffic jam, I can ask myself, “In all the years I’ve been driving, how many accidents have I been in?” The answer is one. Then I ask, “And how many traffic jams have I gotten through safely?” So many I can’t count them! Based on my own personal experience, the odds of getting through this traffic jam safely are much higher than the odds of being significantly injured.
- “Does this feeling come from something happening around me, or is it all in my body?” This is my favorite question to ask. Sometimes we just feel anxious even if there’s nothing going on to trigger it. The heart rate quickens, blood pressure rises, and that knot forms in the stomach. When this happens, our temptation is to literally look for trouble. We say to ourselves, “If I feel anxious, something must be wrong. What is it?” It might be nothing but your body overreacting. The trick here is to not take your body’s cues too seriously. Don’t ever let anyone tell you anxiety is all in your head; it’s in your body!
When we understand what anxiety is trying to tell us, we can see it as helpful reminder. Keeping perspective on anxiety can be a critical step to learning to live in peace with it. Next time you find yourself wishing you could fight off the feeling, take a deep breath and ask yourself the three questions. Perhaps that awareness may be enough to take the sting out of it and help you find a way to enjoy your drive home.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been proven to be the leading treatment for anxiety. If you found this helpful and would like to learn more, please contact the CBT Counseling Centers at 828-350-1177.