To recap, anxiety lies... and it's up to you to expose how anxiety shows up in your mind and body and to challenge it! To practice challenging the lies anxiety tells you, consider the following steps:
1. Identify the Lie - Name the message or potential lie that your anxiety is telling you.
Example: My anxiety is telling me that no one will like me, so I shouldn't even try to make friends.
2. Name Your Fear - Name your biggest fear about the anxiety-producing situation.
Example: My biggest fear is that if I'm myself when I meet new people, no one will like me.
3. Interrogate your Anxiety - Put the messages your anxiety is telling you on trial. What's the evidence that your anxiety is telling the truth? What evidence proves this message to be incorrect? Pretend you're Matlock or Olivia Benson and integrate your anxiety. Be fierce my friends, be fierce. (Fun fact: The practice of cultivating awareness and distance from our thoughts is the basis of Cognitive Behavior Therapy.)
Example: Well actually, when I'm being myself I do find that people like me and I'm able to make friends. I'm a kind and loyal friend. It's when I listen to my anxiety that I end up acting off, I resort to being really quiet and distant, and not giving others the opportunity to get to know me. My anxiety does have some truth to it, not everyone is going to like me, but at the same time, not everyone is going to NOT like me. You win some, you lose some.
4. Practice Being BRAVE! As long as the anxiety-producing situation doesn't pose an actual threat to your mind, body, and spirit - practice stepping into the situations that cause you anxiety, with the help and reassurance of anxiety management coping skills (deep breathing, having a plan, writing a script, utilizing a support person or wing-man, etc). This means you show up at the holiday party, try a new hobby, have the hard conversation, and make the phone call. You practice doing exactly what you're anxiety is telling you not to do.
When we face what feels like our personal sabertooth tigers, with our coping mechanisms in hand, we prove to our mind and body that the reality of what we are most scared of is actually not a life or death threat. Instead, our sabertooth tiger is a customer service representative named 'Dan' who was really nice and more than willing to talk us through a payment plan for our medical bills.
5. Remember to Reflect - this step is often missed but it is VERY important if our goal is to really shut-up anxiety longterm. AFTER being brave and surviving an anxiety-producing event, taking the time to remember the messages and lies your anxiety told you and comparing it to what actually happened is important because you begin to identify and shut down anxiety patterns. You start to expose your anxiety as a fraud and the lying liar that it is As a result, you start to believe your anxiety less.
For example, say your anxiety always lies and says you'll never enjoy yourself in social situations because you always say dumb things, so to reduce feeling anxiety and discomfort you opt to stay in most nights. However, you're brave and go out with friends and have an enjoyable experience, you say a few dumb things but so does everyone else! You come home and before you forget the lies your anxiety told you, you reflect that your anxiety often is super critical of how YOU will act but it's very gracious and forgiving towards how others act. You begin to notice a pattern that your anxiety tends to exaggerate your actions and how you will be perceived by others. You notice a pattern that your anxiety always lies about how others will view you but in reality, those same friends you think you act stupid in front of, who are embarrassed by you, keep asking you to spend time with them!
Stepping away and exploring our experiences right AFTER an anxiety-producing experience can teach us a great deal. So, the next time you are brave and show up to face your anxiety and experience the relief of passing the test or having the hard conversation you've been dreading, take a few minutes and reflect and put your anxiety in its place!
I want to take a minute to acknowledge that some people experience "free-floating" anxiety or Generalized Anxiety Disorder where an aspect of their anxiety is not always rooted in facing specific situations. While the steps above remain an important foundation for challenging anxiety-producing thoughts and experiences, sometimes a gentle surrender is often required for free-floating anxiety where the anxiety is simply noticed, the person acknowledges they can't identify its source, and they practice sitting with their anxiety without feeling the need to solve it or act on it. Instead, they remind themselves their anxiety will pass or lessen with time while utilizing appropriate coping mechanisms like mindfulness or deep breathing. In the near future, I'll write a blog post on how we can learn to mindfully sit with our free-floating anxiety.
I hope these simple tips and tricks help you have a more honest relationship with yourself, your anxiety, and that you begin to challenge the lies anxiety often tell you!
Just like everything else, it takes practice, self-compassion, a bit of failure, and a willingness to try again.
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.