Working through anxiety

3 a.m…Try to sleep but there is no way.  I keep thinking about my presentation today. Stomach upset, churning.  Get up and read some more. Have a coffee.  I’ll never have time to get ready, there is so much to know, things everybody else in class or in the audience knows and I don’t! They’ll know I’m just faking it. I’ll stutter and mumble and look like a fool…Read some more and have another coffee, sun is rising…

Living with anxiety is hard.  The problem is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  This is due to the fact that not believing in ourselves actually decreases our ability to focus and be at our best. Anxiety actually eats away at our self-esteem insidiously and incrementally.  One of the worst things for people to face is public speaking.  I remember dreading school assignments where we had to face the class.  At one point in high school, I had probably talked in front of my class without taking a breath for 2 minutes when I suddenly had to take a huge-hyperventilation type inhalation & exhalation-much to the delight of my classmates who ribbed me about it for years to come.  After that, public speaking in college and university was something I equally feared and avoided as much as I could.   Over time, due to my work, I was forced to practice speaking in front of large audiences, so I was forced to overcome my fears.

In my work as a therapist, I have often had to offer guidance and support to people with anxiety.  Sometimes anxiety comes from people having experienced negative situations. Other times, anxiety can be as a result of things that haven’t happened but that people fear.  As a cognitive behavioral therapist, my approach remains similar in both of these instances.  Through personal experience and over my career, I have come to believe that we must first learn to calm ourselves down physiologically.  The heart communicates to the brain-our breath is critical.  Slow down your breathing and calm your mind to think more effectively.   Second, confront negative automatic thoughts that are fueling your fears.  These “thinking errors” make you feel a certain way, which in turn influence your actions. Turning this cycle around takes time and the discipline to intentionally practice new ways that have been ingrained in us from years and years of being fear driven. Unfortunately, we have also learned to avoid facing our fears or what we don’t like doing, and this avoidance has actually given us some relief. So over time, we have tricked ourselves into thinking that avoidance works. Just don’t make that call or answer the phone. Don’t tell him or her how you really feel or what you really think.  Get somebody else to drive you or just make an excuse not to go. The problem with this strategy is that it only lasts for short periods of time and you have to keep doing it. The good news is that it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Anxiety is treated through exposure.  Gradually, people are encouraged to learn how to control their breathing to better use their minds.  Afterwards, a process of gradual exposure to the feared situation is introduced in order to slowly but surely help people see that they are able to do the thing they didn’t think they could. In therapy, you learn that perfect doesn’t exist and that you are in fact no worse, or better, than anyone else.  Just human with normal imperfections but also great gifts and strengths that you may have never known or may have forgotten about sometime along the way.  In closing, I would say that the best thing to do to fight and overcome anxiety  (not run from it), is to learn as much as you can and then practice acting outside of your comfort zone to increase your self-esteem and your self-confidence.