by Dr. Janina Scarlet
In honor of Halloween, I would like to discuss one of the scariest topics, anxiety. You might be cringing just by reading about it because the topic sounds so frighteningly familiar or you might be rolling your eyes, as if to say, “Anxiety? That’s not scary! Monsters are scary.” Anxiety can in fact become a monster. Just like Freddy Krueger, it can take over your life and even your dreams. Have you ever had a nightmare about being late to class or an important meeting, dying in a plane crash, or showing up to your interview in your pajamas? That’s because anxious thoughts can even manifest themselves in our nightmares or interrupt sleep altogether.
So, why is that? Why is anxiety so overpowering? After all, it’s just an emotion, right? Shouldn’t you be able to just “get over it”? In reality, it’s not so simple. While anxiety is in fact an emotion, it does not act alone. When an intimidating event is lurking in the nearby future (such as having to do a presentation at work or school, having to drive on the freeway, or fly on an airplane), you might begin to notice some anxiety-provoking thoughts, where you imagine the worst possible scenario, such as “If I try this, I will fail,” “I’m going to lose control, or pass out, or go crazy,” “I’m going to do a terrible job and everybody will judge me,” “What if this plane crashes,” “What if I get fired?” These thoughts are often self-propagating, which means that they cause more of such thoughts to occur, and soon enough you’re flying in a tornado of terrifying thoughts that you cannot control. To make matters worse, these thoughts trigger uncomfortable physiological sensations that come along with the emotion of anxiety, such as increased heart beat, shallow breath, sweating, muscle tension, and other sensations. And what happens to your thoughts as these physiological sensations increase? You guessed it, they get worse. Thus, the thoughts and feelings (both emotional and physical), affect one another and result in you wanting to escape from the feared situation by cancelling, calling in sick, rescheduling, procrastinating, taking a Xanax, the list goes on. Initially, you might feel very relieved after escaping from the hairy anxiety monster. However, what happens long term, what are the costs of avoidance? For many people the cost is reduced ability to live a meaningful life. For example, if you keep avoiding social events, or driving/flying, this might result in you having fewer personal connections or fewer employment opportunities.
So how do you battle the anxiety monster? There are many treatments that exist for reducing anxiety and/or learning to live a meaningful life despite your anxiety. Different treatments work for different people, so you might want to do some additional research (or email us with questions) to figure out which treatment will work better for you.
Several treatment modalities are supported by research to help people with anxiety disorders. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works by directly challenging anxious thoughts, such as “If I fly today, my plane will crash,” as well as by teaching you techniques to break the vicious cycle where thoughts and feelings feed off of each other. Finally, it focuses on changing your behaviors to reduce your fears, anxious thoughts, and physical sensations. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) focuses on reducing avoidance and increasing mindfulness, awareness of thoughts, and increasing behaviors that are in line with your personal values, allowing you to live a more meaningful life.