Reverse Anxiety: Part V, Calling Anxiety's Bluff

Do You Have Anxiety or Does Anxiety Have You?

This morning while driving to see a client, I was listening to Max Lucado’s book Anxious For Nothing:  Finding Calm In A Chaotic World on CD, when he said (and I’m paraphrasing) “Anxiety is unavoidable, but being imprisoned by it is optional.” Profound thought indeed.

Below (and in some of the following blogs) are a collection of anxiety's sleight-of-hand tricks that, in my own life, I've been able to catch and pull the rug out from under.  Notice in all of them we are left with the choice of habitually/automatically believing them, or strategically calling their bluff:

Three Anxious Lies About Finality

I’ve received a lot of help with anxiety in the past (mostly from books), but one of the things that stands out the most and that has made a measurable difference in my struggle with anxiety is something (actually three somethings) I read years ago.  I read about them in a book called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne, Ph.D. 

It goes something like this...(paraphrasing again):  when it comes to anxiety, what keeps us immobilized are three main thought distortions:  overestimating, catastrophizing and underestimating.  (The OCU--jab, jab, cross--combo I call it; not sure Bourne approves, but I love it).  

First in the combo, a light Anxious jab:

In boxing, the--jab, jab, cross punch combo--is designed to trick the opponent.  Throw a  couple jabs at %60 power when he's expecting the usual jab-cross combo, and you have yourself a recipe to serve up that right-hook with %100 trouble.

Anxiety (in our minds) like Muhammad Ali, dances around to throw us off.  When it comes to potentially anxiety provoking situations, not knowing anxiety's next move, we can be tricked into placing our bet that any given situation can and will (you see it?...overestimating) cause incredible anxiety.  Anxious thinking says, if there's even a pint-sized chance that something bad could go down, it will.  We know beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt, it will happen.  In boxing terms, when our opponent is about to lob a jab, we expect and prepare for a jaw-breaking upper-cut.  This, of course, doesn't help our cadence any.  As a boxer, thinking this way messes with our stance, makes us tense and aware of the wrong things, which makes us vulnerable to attack.  

The same thing happens when we overestimate something bad happening in life.  I was faced with this very phenomena the other day.  While driving down Powers Ave. I suddenly became sharply aware of all the speeding traffic around me.  This realization thrust my brain into a tailspin of “this will surely end will have to pull over because of anxiety and cause a wreck doing it!”  Yes, there's always the possibility that something can go wrong.  But, this lie always kicks its shoes on the floor and outstays its welcome yelling in finality “ALERT! ALERT!  PREPARE, SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN!...for sure.”  My body tensed, my hands began sweating, and my mind narrowed in on itself...

Another Phony jab:

What usually sends us into a outright plunge is what typically follows the overestimation phase.  We fear that if something does happen, it will be catastrophic.  Not a sprinkle, but a hurricane...not a dust devil, but a tornado...not a jab, but a brain-busting right hook.  A boxer cannot be offensive when he's toppled over into a fetal position because of fear of what he thinks will happen.  Jabs can hurt, but more than sheer damage, they're used for testing the waters of one's opponent.  They're used for testing...throwing off...disturbing rhythm, not impairment.

That same day, while driving down that anxiety provoking road (Coloradans always think they're on a racetrack), after my mind became aware of all the traffic around me and how it seemed to be closing in on me, trapping me, immediately, what followed was the terminal thought that I'd have to stop abruptly.  An action that would surely cause a mass collision ending in death--Final Destination style.  That’s catastrophizing!

the dreadful right hook:

Third, and I think the most impactful issue in the OCU three-part combo (jab, jab, right hook) list is what Borne calls underestimating...the feared right hook.  When we fear the worst will happen and then catastrophize it, we then undoubtedly underestimate our ability (resources) to handle/cope with it.  In boxing lingo, if our opponent does throw his hard right hook, we conclude that we won't be able to cope and it will surely end in a TKO (total-knock-out)...which we couldn't handle either, we conclude. 

In my driving scenario, while driving in the left lane (especially at night), I often feel overwhelmed by the thought that I might need to pull over or stop (or that I may lose control and run off the road--whether intentionally or not).  Well, my brain, of course, will often times promptly follow up with the thought that I won’t be able to pull over...or handle it, in one piece, anyway.  My anxious thinking instantly overlooks the fact that I could just run off the road and nothing bad happen other than I might disturb some crickets or rudely awaken some cows.  It totally bypasses the thought that even if I did get into an accident (TKO'd) odds are I'd survive...or die and go to Heaven.  Neither of which makes for a bad day.    

Together, these three lies create a very powerful one, two, three punch to the gut of our recovery efforts.  

(P.S. yes, I am a therapist, and yes I still have these nutty thoughts on occasion.  The difference between now and when I spent almost two years paralyzed in my apartment, is that I now call Anxiety’s bluff.  "You are real, you are scary, yes.  But you cannot hurt me and you’re just a liar trying to take my life, my freedom away. Oh, and by the way, I’ve figured you out, you’re not the enemy, you're just an emotion.  One that triggers distorted, false thoughts/feelings/ go away).

Next, we'll unravel more of the sleight-of-hand tricks of anxiety...

Jeff Mowery, LPC


Want to read Max's or Edmund's books, click on the links below to explore them/purchase them:

The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook
By Edmund Bourne PhD

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