Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
Do anxious, fearful or uneasy thoughts sometimes take over your life? Or do you find yourself unable to sleep, full of unrelenting doubts and avoiding certain activities or people?
Painful feelings such as anxiety, are often associated with worries about negative consequences– say that an important goal will be blocked or that you will fail, be criticized, hurt or abandoned. The intensity of your feelings can leave you stuck in a cycle of anxious feelings, with worry and restlessness fueled by doubt, thinking “what-if” and anticipating fearful experiences.
Emotions, even those that are painful, serve an important purpose in our lives. For example, anxiety about your child’s health can cause you to stay up all night to monitor a high fever.
But sometimes we can get stuck. We become nervous and overlook parts of the situation that are not threatening. Or we feel doubt and begin a relentless cycle searching for solutions, missed details and anticipating all possible outcomes. When anxious, we’re more likely to attend to any potential threats in our environment and to interpret circumstances as threatening that at other times we would not. Once the cycle begins, anxiety can stick around, damage our relationships and keep us from positive life experiences.
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Sometimes the only way to change painful emotions is by changing how you act. The key word here is sometimes. In the case of anxiety, it’s important to determine whether you have reason to feel anxious. If your child’s health is at risk from a high fever, then it is important to respond to your anxiety. But, changing how you act will change your levels of fear and anxiety if you are exaggerating or misinterpreting the danger. Anxiety about speaking in public, for example, can be greatly reduced by speaking in public. Usually our fears of criticism are overblown and exaggerated beyond any real disparagement we might encounter.
Changing how you act will only change how you feel if you change both your actions and your thoughts. Speaking in public, all the while thinking “this is awful” “I can’t stand it” or “this is a catastrophe” will not reduce anxious feelings about public speaking. You have to change your thinking, as well as your behavior. This could mean thinking “I’m nervous, but doing okay.”
Steps to Change Anxious Feelings
1. Figure out your emotion. Emotions can be complicated and confusing. Figuring out what you are feeling, for example nervous, annoyed, fearful or anxious, is an important first step. Are underlying feelings of guilt or anger influencing your anxiety?
2. Ask yourself what action goes with that emotion. For example, avoidance generally goes with fear. Anxiety often has an impact on our thoughts. Anxious thoughts are often repetitive and focused on possible negative outcomes.
3. Ask yourself ‘do I want to reduce my levels of anxiety?’ It only makes sense to try to change those feelings you want to change.
4. Figure out what the opposite action is. The opposite of avoidance is approach. Remember, in the case of fear and anxiety changing how you act only works if your fear is not justified. If you are in physical danger or under threat, your anxiety can be serving an important purpose.
5. Do the opposite action all the way. Throw yourself in to acting differently in both your actions and your thoughts. Acting differently, without thinking differently won’t work. You have to do both.
The ability to solve life’s problems and live the life you want to live sometimes means acting in opposition to your feelings. You may need to approach a feared experience or re-focus on aspects of your life that are non-threatening. Doing so can reduce anxiety that has become destructive in your life.
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