Anxiety and Worry
We planned our first trip to Disney World as parents with great intention. Having grown up near Orlando I always felt an affinity for the most Magical Place on Earth and it was important that my little boy had an awesome introduction to the parks that would allow him to truly appreciate the “Disney Experience”. At about 3 years old, I looked at my wife after he watched a Disney sing along video and said, “He’s ready!” Less than 2 weeks later, we were giggling like little school girls walking him into the Magic Kingdom. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he saw Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse for the first time. He was enthralled with them and smiled from ear to ear as he gave Mickey and Minnie his first Disney character high five. Then we went straight to the Buzz Lightyear ride, which was another huge hit. I looked at my wife as we walked off Buzz and mentioned, “I think he really believes we were just space rangers helping Buzz defeat Zurg.” Turns out, I was right. He really did believe this made-up land was real. That became apparent about 30 minutes later as we sat down on the Lilo and Stitch ride. He said with a mix of excitement and cautiousness, “Are we going to see Stitch Daddy?” “Yeah Buddy, we are!” As the ride progressed there is a moment in which the mood and tenor of the ride changes dramatically. In complete darkness, and thanks to the engineering of the Disney imagineers, you feel the actual warmth and moisture of Stitch’s breath. You also feel him brush across the bottom of your legs. It’s actually a quite ingenious 4-D experience that feels incredibly real. The problem is that it felt a little too real for my son’s little 3-year-old mind. He screamed with everything within him like his life depended on it, “Daddy, help me!” He then went a little psycho trying to wiggle his way out of the restraints on the seat. To make a long story short, my son finished out the Stitch ride curled up in my arms believing wholeheartedly that this Disney experience was reality.
Interestingly, my son’s experience at Disney has relevance for all of us. Most people that struggle with anxiety and chronic worry are wholeheartedly trusting that the experience of anxiety is very real. When we are anxious, we trust the anxious thoughts that frighten us and that keep us from living in joy and happiness. But trusting those anxiety provoking thoughts is believing a lie we are telling ourselves about our own ability to predict the future. You think the Disney engineers are good at making fantasies feel real using lights and sound effects? Your brain is even better. Think about it, how often do the things you worry about actually come true? My hunch is that if you’re honest with yourself, you would admit almost never. Research has confirmed that the overwhelming majority of the time, the thoughts that drive our anxiety and worry are not based in realty but are instead projections of our greatest fears onto our future. Participants in the study were asked to record thoughts that brought on worry or anxiety and then review those logs every evening for 30 days to see how many actually came true. The results? 91% of things people worried about were false alarms. For the remaining 9% of worries that did come true, the outcome was better than expected about a third of the time. For about one in four participants, exactly zero worries came true. Our anxiety and worry are creating a fantasy world that just isn’t reflected in reality. Our anxious and worried thoughts have made us like 3-year-olds at Disney World: It feels so real, but it’s just not. What can you do if you want to quit believing the lies of anxiety and worry and begin to live in peace and joy? Here are 3 strategies that I have used with patients for many years that will help you do just that.
1. Quit indulging the lie of Anxiety and Worry
We can truly quit indulging the lie of anxiety and worry when we refuse to identify with our emotional experience of anxiety and look at our thoughts without being clouded with emotion. This requires us to look at our emotion in the moment and allow ourselves to accept it and label it. Research shows that just being able to admit that we feel anxious about something that might happen in the future allows us to turn the emotional lights on and can begin to evaluate the anxiety with more clarity. I find that most people struggling with chronic worry or anxiety seem to be most anxious about admitting that they are anxious. This is true because we believe on some level that allowing ourselves to recognize the emotion of anxiety will somehow validate it and make us feel more vulnerable and less powerful to address what might be coming in the future. Ironically, the path to defeating anxiety starts with accepting anxiety for what it is, labeling it, and making the decision to refuse to give it more power than it deserves. It’s just an emotion, after all. One that will pass as we evaluate what is causing it.
2. Pull back the curtain on anxiety and worry
When the Lilo and Stitch ride is over at Disney World, the house lights immediately come on and you see everything around you with clarity. I watched my son stick his head up and look around to see that what he thought was real was not actually happening. It was almost an instant relief. His experience in the moment dramatically shifted and he was no longer physiologically activated when he could see clearly what was really going on behind the scenes. How do we do this? We pull back the curtain on anxiety and worry by seeing the facts for what they are. Just like the participants in the research I mentioned above, log your anxiety and worry thoughts every day. I recommend that you log your negative thoughts 4 times a day (when you start your workday, at lunch, at dinner time, and at bedtime). Focus on worries that can be tested against your reality. For instance, “I will get a bad review at work tomorrow” can be tested. “I will get cancer at some point in my life” cannot be tested. Over the next 30 days, review your list of worry thoughts to see how often the things you are worried about actually come true. In all likelihood, you will find that the overwhelming majority of your anxious and worried thoughts never really come to fruition. That data in and of itself should help you begin to reject the lie of anxiety and worry in the moment. Just like my son, your experience will dramatically shift, and you will no longer be emotionally activated when you see just how often the things you get anxious and worried about never happen.
3. Try Radical acceptance
One of the things I have found working with clients for years to address anxiety and worry is that there is a secondary gain to anxiety and worry thoughts. Although they create misery and siphon the joy and peace from our life, these thoughts actually act as a coping skill of sorts that allows us to feel like we are doing something that will keep us from feeling blindsided by the brokenness of our world. The truth is, if you log your worries as we discussed above, some of them might come true. That’s just life. The irony here is that anxiety and worry give you the false promise in the moment that the uncomfortable emotions and physiological activation that comes with anxious thoughts is somehow able to make the trials and challenges of life more tolerable. But they don’t. The problems still come, and we still have to deal with them creatively in the moment. Accept that, and you just might allow yourself to release unhealthy control you are trying to exert over what tomorrow brings.