3 Questions To Put Your Anxiety in Check
Did you ever play whack-a-mole as a kid? Remember trying to stay laser focused, bent on popping one of those suckers on the head the second you saw a hint of mole fur?
And maybe you’d get one. But then, without missing a beat, one of his buddies would pop-up out of a neighboring hole. And then another. And you’d keep swatting away in vain.
Dealing with anxiety is kind of like playing whack-a-mole, only a whole lot less fun. You might put all of your attention on getting one cause of your anxiety under control, but unless you tackle all of the underlying moles … er, um … causes, your anxiety will just keep popping up in other ways.
But, the good news is, there’s a pretty simple formula that can help you figure out just how anxious you get in any particular situation. And it’s directly linked to how we process anxiety on a thought level.
It looks something like this …
Let me explain. Let’s take flying. Plenty of people can relate to a fear of flying—whether your heart takes a little, tiny leap as you start to taxi down the runway or your chest pounds until the wheels tap the tarmac again.
How you perceive the experience of and dangers associated with flying determine how anxious it makes you.
So, let’s plug it into our anxiety formula and see how you can figure out how anxious you’ll be on your next flight (and get some practice using the algorithm).
Part 1: Perceived likelihood of worst-case scenario
If you’re getting on an airplane and you think it’s very likely it will crash, then you’re very likely to be really anxious—like “I’m gonna need 10 more tiny bottles of vodka” anxious.
But, if you think that it’s next to impossible to crash, then you’re likely to be pretty calm during the flight—aren’t you?
So, the more likely you think a worst-case scenario will happen, the more anxious you’ll feel about it.
Part 2: Perceived awfulness of worst-case scenario
If you think the worst outcome of boarding a plane is that it will crash and burn and kill you and your family and then the world will explode, then you’ll be pretty anxious about it.
But, if you’re biggest flight-related fear is that they’re going to run out of peanuts before you get any, you probably won’t be too freaked out.
So, the more horrible you think the outcome will be, the more anxious you’ll feel.
Part 3: Perceived ability to cope
If you think the plane will inevitably crash and there’s absolutely nothing you could do to save yourself, you’ll feel pretty anxious.
But, if you believe you have a magic parachute that can get you out of there unscathed, you’ll probably not worry too much.
So, the better you think you can cope with a feared outcome, the less anxious you’ll feel about it happening.
Tipping the scale in your favor
So, let’s take a look at the formula again, and see how we can get it working for you.
Notice that all three parts include the word “perceived”? That’s the magic word in the formula. It’s what lets you make the formula work for you so you can take control of your anxiety.
Why? Because it’s not really about whether or not the bad thing is likely to happen. It’s about how much you believe it’s likely to happen.
If the chance of an airplane crashing is statistically .0001%, but you believe it’s 50%, then the “50%” blinking like a neon sign in your head is what will keep you with a white-knuckled death grip on the armrest the whole flight.
In our culture, we usually tie our identity directly to our thoughts. As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”
But the truth is, we are not our thoughts. We are the separate consciousness that can take a step back from our thoughts and become aware of them and what they’re telling us to believe. And realizing this can help you dramatically reduce your anxiety about anything you’re afraid of.
We are so much more than a specific set of thoughts. How do I know this? So many reasons.
First, your thoughts change all the time. Let’s say you meet someone at a party for the first time, and you try talking to him few times, but he just won’t speak to you. You might think ,“What a jerk.”
The next day, you find out his brother died a week before in an accident and he’s seriously depressed. Your thought changes: “That guy wasn’t being a jerk. He’s suffering.”
Your thought changes, but you’re still the same person you were at the party, in the same body, with the same heart and mind. So you must be more than your thoughts.
Plus, so often your thoughts are telling you one thing, even when your body is doing something totally different. We’ve all thought, “Nope. I’m not going to have another cookie. Not happening.”
Then, the next thing you know, you look down at an empty Oreo sleeve and you’ve eaten six more cookies. How did that happen? Well, because there’s a lot more to you than your deliberate, conscious thoughts.
This is why mindfulness is so important. We learn to take a step back and acknowledge our thoughts—in the moment, as we’re having them—without labeling them.
So, if you want to manage your anxiety around a particular situation, you have to change your thoughts about it. Specifically, you have to change at least one of the three perceptions in the anxiety formula.
You can start by asking yourself these three questions:
- Perceived likelihood of the worst-case scenario: How likely is it that the worst-case scenario will really happen?
First, ask yourself, “Has this ever actually happened to me? Has it ever happened to anyone? How often has it happened? Is there any hard evidence, like reputable statistics, that states how likely my worst-case scenario really is?”
If it’s never happened to you, ask around. Do some research if you have to.
- Perceived awfulness of the worst-case scenario: If it did happen, how terrible would this situation really be?
Rank it on a scale of 1-10 in terms of the most awful thing that could ever happen to you.
Would you survive? Once it was over, would your life really be worse?
- Perceived ability to cope: How would I cope (really)?
Most predictions about worst-case scenarios imply that you really wouldn’t cope with the experience very well. You might think you’ll fall apart, lose everything, even die.
But, try to come up with a list of ways that you could handle the situation. Can you remember times when this situation happened before? How did you cope then? Did you ever have a similar experience that you handled well? Can you learn how to deal better from this situation?
Take some time to ask yourself these three questions about a situation that makes you anxious. Once you have the answers, create your own anti-anxiety formula and see how it changes how you feel about the situation.
Then, tell us all what you learned from the exercise and how it helped you manage an anxious situation.