By Lindsey Rogers, LCPC
In 1988, Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” topped the charts, urging everyone to let go of whatever was troubling them and focus on the positive. The charming tune may be a helpful mantra for some, but for people struggling with anxiety, not worrying isn’t that easy. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 18 percent of the United States population over the age of 18 is affected by anxiety. “That gives me anxiety” or “I had a panic attack over that” are part of the lexicon but acceptance and treatment of an anxiety disorder is far more fear-producing for people. A little anxiety before a performance, public speaking, or a first date makes sense. Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress. But when these symptoms are pervasive, are not triggered by a circumstance, or interfere with day-to-day functioning, it’s another story. Stress hormones flood our bodies and cause us to experience the physiological symptoms of anxiety such as a racing heartbeat, tightness in our chests, or gastrointestinal problems. We are wired to experience these symptoms because they alert us to prospective danger and encourage us to react in an aggressive way or avoid the threat (fight or flight). Worries are often verbally expressed whereas anxiety is very much experienced throughout our bodies. The more we can understand anxiety as different than a passing worry, as a real state that needs to be managed and treated rather than just ignored, the better we will be.
Me: “What could possibly go wrong?” Anxiety: “I’m glad you asked.”
Anxiety can have a snowball effect. A teeny-tiny-sized ball of white powder becomes an enormous boulder of packed ice, picking up speed and power as it ricochets down a steep incline. This is what happens with our thoughts. We easily add onto the negative, scary possibilities of what could go wrong. We anticipate and take on the negative outcomes we imagine. On top of that, we get really, really good at creating a sense of how bad things could get. Forget horror films; anxiety can cause us to imagine a super scary setting where we definitely should not go and yet, every time—every single time—we walk right in and know we are going to be obliterated. This distorted thinking is pretty great at appearing in full-force at nighttime, especially when we are trying to fall asleep or stay asleep. We struggle to live with uncertainty so we imagine and think and then feel our ways into these worst-case scenarios. There is also often a false belief when we start ruminating that we will figure it out—that we will get to the end of the thought loop and solve the problem. So we just keep going over and over it in our minds. Sound familiar? It is exhausting and can leave us feeling really defeated and powerless. So when someone tells us, “Just get over it, why worry?” that can feel very dismissive.
How to slow down those avalanches
Challenging your thoughts is a great way to start chipping away at those snowballs in your mind. Psychotherapy can help you learn and exercise tools to manage anxiety. It takes time and practice to change the way you are thinking. A helpful acronym to remember for “FEAR” is “False Expectations Appearing Real.” It can be useful to slow down those anxious thoughts and see them for what they are: really vivid, realistic-looking thoughts that, vivid and realistic as they may seem, are not true. Mindfulness is a great tool to help calm the physiological aspects of anxiety. If you can feel present in the moment and see the anxious thoughts as falling snowflakes versus crushing slabs of hardened precipitation, well, that sounds a lot better, doesn’t it? You may be a little frustrated with the snow out of the blue, you may need to put a hat on, but you can figure out ways to let the snow fall. If this wintry metaphor leaves you cold, think of another way of managing anxiety by completing your thoughts. If you are imagining those worst-case scenarios in the middle of the night, try to keep on completing them. What?! Keep going?! Likely the thoughts are about a bad thing happening to you over which you lack control. Completing the thought means you process that worst-case scenario and instead of getting stuck with how bad it would feel, you arm yourself with what you would do. Anxious thoughts leave us feeling helpless and stuck. When we remind ourselves that we have self-efficacy and abilities and strengths, the feelings of powerlessness dissipate a bit. Finally, an exercise like journaling or finding a container for the overwhelming thoughts can be helpful. The less it feels like you are stuck with these thoughts and feelings, the better.
Keep your snow shovel handy
No need to criticize Bobby McFerrin’s major hit. The idea of being happy sounds a lot better than being crushed by the weight of worries. The more we are able to identify our triggers and manage anxiety—equip ourselves with our snow gear, so to speak—the better we will feel. Know that it isn’t easy to manage overwhelming thoughts and feelings; it takes help, strategies, and even medication at times. And it may look like your neighbor’s driveway is always easily cleared whereas you have a mountain range of snow accumulation. But the reality is that anxiety is common, and real, and there are ways to cope.