How to Expose and Challenge the Lies Anxiety Tells Us - Part 1
If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times. Anxiety lies!
Anxiety is a lying liar who lies! I'd yell it from the rooftop if I could. Anxiety is a master manipulator and it exaggerates the truth until it is blue in the face. Anxiety has a tendency to highlight our biggest fears and weaknesses without taking into account our strengths, capabilities, or our lived experiences of continually doing hard things. Anxiety shoves reality out the window and sets up camp in our mind and body while it begins preaching doom and gloom to our soul. Anxiety will remind us of the worst case scenarios but will never mention all the times it has been dead wrong. It always skips over all the lies it told us that never came true.
While anxiety tends to be a hindrance to us currently, historically and genetically, our anxiety served an important purpose for our ancestors. It was an evolutionary adaptation (EEA) to avoid danger and harm. In potentially dangerous situations, the physical and emotional sensations of anxiety caused our ancestors to respond by fighting (escalating behavior) or fleeing (de-escalating behavior) to respond to dangerous situations.
Today our brains remain programmed to reduce harm and experience an increased sense of safety. While our brains' responses have remained relatively the same, what we now interpret as dangerous and anxiety provoking has morphed and changed with time. For individuals experiencing anxiety, the sensation related to having to make a phone call, showing up at a holiday party, braving winter roads, or having a hard conversation with a family member can produce the same physiological responses as staring down a sabertooth tiger. This is why anxiety is a tricky, tricky, lying, liar because the stimulus that causes us to experience such physical and emotional discomfort usually isn't as dangerous as our anxiety tells us it is.
For example, for someone who has anxiety, making a phone call may feel as scary as staring down a sabertooth tiger but in actuality, their lives are NOT at risk. Very rarely are people harmed in the making of a restaurant reservation, and yet it can feel terrifying to do so.
So how do we realign our minds and bodies, bring them back into reality, and challenge our bodily fear responses? Challenging and treating anxiety requires individuals to be both aware and brave. First, we need to become more aware of how our anxiety manifests itself in our lives. Consider asking yourself the following:
What are the physical signs and symptoms that tell me I'm experiencing anxiety? Where do I feel it in my body?
Example: Racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, pressure on the chest, blotchy skin on neck and chest. Right now, my anxiety feels like it is living in my stomach.
What thought patterns do you I often experience that create or increase my anxiety?
Example: "I'm not good enough", "No one will talk to me." "I always mess up", "Everyone notices my flaws", "Everyone thinking I'm weird", and "I can't do anything right", "Nothing ever works out", or "I shouldn't even try, it won't be perfect enough".
What are the people, situations, or environments that trigger me to experience anxiety?
Example: Social situations, taking a test, talking about money, asking for help, when I'm really tired when I have low blood sugar, or after a major disappointment, or when I'm feeling really incompetent and/or vulnerable.
Second, we need to practice being brave! While awareness is an important first step, it often isn't enough to quiet the lies anxiety tells us. To tackle anxiety, especially social anxiety, we need to expose ourselves to what we're most afraid of to prove that our anxiety is being dishonest and that it is actively distorting reality. This is only appropriate when what we are anxious about doesn't pose an actual risk to our mind, bodies, or spirit. If you have anxiety about going into dark alleys in the middle of the night, that anxiety seems to be warning you of appropriate and realistic possible harm - let's listen to it. In therapy, we utilize exposure therapy as a way of being brave, challenging anxiety, and showing it who is boss. This means we expose or experience the situations that usually cause us anxiety, armed with the improved coping mechanism, and then follow up the experience with a strong dose of reflection to compare what anxiety told us would happen and what ACTUALLY happened.
Reflecting on being brave might include asking ourselves questions like:
What did the experience feel like in my body? Was the story my anxiety told me about the situation, (holiday party, taking a test, making a phone call) match up with the experience I actually had?
What was "real" about what just happened? Reflect on the experience you just had - what actually happened?
Example: Going into the doctor's office and requesting more information wasn't as bad as I thought it would be...
Did my anxiety lie to me? If so, how can I recognize and challenge my anxiety in the future so I can tell it to shut up?
Do the lies my anxiety tell me have a regular pattern?
Example: Yes, my anxiety continually exaggerates how uncomfortable a situation might be, when the reality is that most of the time, it's okay, or at the very worst, tolerable.
Tune in next week for a recap on how to better manage anxiety....
Sara Hughes-Zabawa, LMSW has extensive experience working with trauma survivors, depression & anxiety, LGBT+ individuals and their families, and faith transitions. She is also a yoga instructor and uses mindfulness training to support clients in cultivating self-care practices.