*** Do Not Feed the Fears is part 7 in a series of posts. If you want to read part 1, click here. You don’t have to read the entire series to understand each individual post, but they are written to be complimentary to each other! ***
As usual: I am NOT a doctor, and I am not formally educated on mental illness. You should see a doctor to learn about your options.
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I saw this sign once, and it sums up my whole point here today. I love it so much. So that’s basically the jist, but I’ll go ahead and give you more details so you don’t feel like you wasted your time clicking here 😉
Plus it’s actually more complicated than that.
I want this series to be largely things that you can do on your own to deal with anxiety. I’ve mentioned before that I have found therapy endlessly helpful in dealing with my anxiety. My therapist has given me SO many of the tools that I use on a daily basis to confront my demons head on.
But if you can’t afford therapy or don’t have the time or are just to scared to go, then I want you to know that there are still things you can do on your own to recover from anxiety.
One of the reasons that therapy is so beneficial is that it takes the generic out of YOUR anxiety and helps you to deal with your personal issues. I can talk for hours about MY stuff, the ways that MY anxiety whirls around in MY mind… but I don’t know anything specific about YOUR stuff.
The good news here is that we’re all human and our stuff is often similar even if it’s not the same. So I don’t feel like I’m wasting my breath telling you about my experience. I could write post after post on my experiences with CBT (cognitive behavior therapy), but today I’m going to just focus on the ONE aspect that has been the MOST helpful for me.
In CBT, you identify and challenge your negative (or anxious) thoughts. It works. BUT I find that it’s easier to challenge the negative thoughts when there are less of them, and so this post is really about how to cut down on the number of negative thoughts you might have, before you even start to challenge them. Starve the fears. If the thoughts are starved, they are weaker.
There are two main ways that my fears are fed. Thoughts that are planted in my head and thoughts that I allow to run around in my head. (Sort of the same, but very different in that there are different courses of action I need to take against these things.)
Setting up boundaries about what comes into your head
Boundaries for what’s coming into your head are different than boundaries for what you’re going to allow yourself to experience, just FYI. Understand that as you read this.Living well with anxiety means finding ways to deal with the anxiety, not hide from every anxiety inducing experience.
It’s ok for you to (politely) tell a friend, “I’m sorry I just can’t hear this dentist horror story you’re telling right now because I have a dentist appointment coming up and I’m so nervous about it”.
You NEED to go to the dentist, you don’t NEED to fill your head with scary dentist stories first. See the difference? That is what I’m talking about here. I’m not suggesting you give up the dentist / riding in elevators / getting on airplanes. Just the things that create excessive unnecessary negative or anxious thoughts about those things.
In fact, actually going to the dentist can be very beneficial if you’re afraid of the dentist. That sounds backwards, but it’s called exposure therapy and it absolutely works for some people. Filling yourself in on (likely uncommon) stories of unfortunate things that have happened to people who had a root canal will not help you.
(You’ll notice while I write about my experiences that I’m not going to describe in any detail the sorts of things that bother me. That’s important. Hold that thought and I’ll come back to that.)
I have found that setting strict boundaries for what I allow my mind to be exposed to has helped SO much. I know, from repeated experience, that feeding the anxious thoughts in my head (through TV, the radio, books, social media, passing conversation ect) can be extremely detrimental to me. Sure, there are people who don’t understand my position on totally avoiding horror movies, crime shows, shows with violence, THE NEWS, ect but it doesn’t matter if they understand. I understand (& my husband / family / friends) and that’s what’s important.
It’s not always easy and it takes practice. It takes resolve. When I first started telling people that I wasn’t going to watch the news anymore or started asking my family to stop talking about certain subjects while I was with them, some of them even told me that sticking my head in the sand wasn’t the best way to deal with my problems. That stung a little bit.
But my resolve to live a life not controlled by anxiety was pretty solid and I held my ground. At the beginning that even meant leaving the room when the conversation was unnecessary for me, leaving the theater when the movie was more violent than we expected. Finding something else to do (in another room) when the TV show we were watching turned out to be a little spooky but the other person wasn’t willing to turn it off. It’s also meant unfriending (or unfollowing) people on Facebook that post things that bother my brain.
Keeping the anxiety-inducing influences out of my head is a BIG help towards getting started on the next step – which is the most important thing I have ever done for my anxiety.
Taking control of the things you think about
Sometimes, though, the anxious thoughts get in. For every thought, (not just anxiety-inducing thoughts) once it’s in your head you have a choice to make. Do I follow this thought or not?
I’ll give you a pretty tired analogy here… but it’s tired ‘cus it works. Imagine that you’re driving your car down a straight road. The road is so straight the car is practically on autopilot, you’re really not having to put any effort in to drive. You know the road ahead is dangerous – you’ve gone down it before. There’s a turn just up ahead. That’s a safe road, but you’ll need to take control of the car and do the driving. What do you do?
Learning to recognize and stop those first anxiety causing thoughts when you’re at the beginning of the road is so important. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
At first, it might even take physical action to disrupt your “car” of thought. When you see that dangerous road ahead, you have to turn off of it.
Most of my anxiety inducing thoughts come at night, right after I turn off the lights to go to bed. This means sometimes I need to get back out of bed, turn all the lights on, and watch TV or read something that will distract me. Just laying there in the dark and trying to force myself to think of something else is like going “don’t think of elephants!”
Going for a run is fantastic way to turn off my thoughts. Having a conversation with someone about a completely unrelated topic is awesome. Praying about something not related to what’s causing you anxiety is awesome. (Go ahead and pray briefly about your anxiety, but praying long prayers about what you’re thinking about is still counted as thinking about it, and it’s shooting yourself in the foot. Your prayers don’t need to be wordy to be answered.)
Remember I said I won’t describe the things that make me anxious? Cus that would be thinking about them. Eventually you will learn to STOP those thoughts in their tracks. It would be very. very. stupid. for me to think that I needed to describe my anxiety triggers to you.
When I first started seeing my therapist for anxiety we worked through this Anxiety & Phobia workbook, which was absolutely awesome. It has a whole section on “over coming negative self-talk” (which is totally about controlling your thoughts). I recommend it to everyone who struggles with anxiety and would like some more guidance on this subject.
Take control of your thoughts, do not feed the fears. Do not google your symptoms if your anxiety is health related. Do not read about medical mistakes if you’re afraid of the doctor. Do not watch Jaws if you’re afraid of the water. Don’t join in conversations about the upcoming election if the future of the world makes you nervous. Why make your anxiety worse than it is?
P.S. Recently I read one of the best posts I have ever come across in all the internet world – and I’ve been meaning to share it here, because I think it’s SO relevant to this exact subject. Go read What to do when the scary world gets to you from Morgan @ Morgan Manages Mommyhood, and be totally inspired!
Read Part 1 of The Ultimate Guide to Living (Well) With Anxiety
Read Part 2 – Understanding Anxiety Disorders
Read Part 3 – Understanding Panic Attacks
Read Part 4 – Anxiety and Diet
Read Part 5 – Natural Supplements for Anxiety
Read Part 6 – What Can Exercise do for Anxiety?
Read Part 8 – Talking About Anxiety
Read Part 9 – For the Christian with Anxiety
Read Part 10 – 3 Things to Remember When You Are Anxious
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