Anxiety loves to tell lies. Anxiety likes to stand behind you and reinterpret the world in a negative way. Someone tells you that they like your shirt? Anxiety whispers in your ear, “They just feel bad for you leaving the house looking like that.”
Anxiety blows it all up and makes everything worse. Anxiety is a dirty rotten liar.
But the biggest lie anxiety tells you is that it’s telling you all of these dirty, rotten lies for your own good; anxiety lies by telling you that it’s just trying to keep you safe.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt again!” Anxiety says. “I just don’t want you to get in a wreck so I make you too nervous to drive! I just don’t want you to lose your job so I need you to check that submitted file for the umpteenth time for typos instead of getting some sleep!”
What we need to do is the same thing we’d do with anyone we thought was lying to us — we need to confront them about their lying.
The first thing to do is to get good at spotting it when anxiety is doing the talking. This sounds easy but when we get anxious we don’t always know that it’s anxiety; we think it’s real. We think, “Oh lord, am I nervous” or “Oh gosh, am I scared” or “Oh man, I’m overwhelmed” and we run with it. When we acknowledge that anxiety is this voice living alongside us, we can say, “Oh lord, am I nervous but I think that’s my anxiety talking.” That alerts us to look for the lies.
We are having an experience — eating an ice cream cone, seeing a dog run across the field next to the park where we’re pushing our kid on a swing, ironing our clothes for work tomorrow — and then anxiety comes in and colors what’s happening. Suddenly that ice cream is a stand in for every body image issue we’ve ever had. Suddenly that dog is Cujo waiting to spring. Suddenly work is a pit of despair and fear. But when we see that anxiety is the overlay, we can go back and say, “Before I go there, down the anxiety path, I can stop and recognize that I’m just having this very specific moment right now.”
That’s the first step.
Speaking Truth to Anxiety
The next step is recognizing that anxiety is not the expert on the situation. Remember, anxiety is a liar and wants you to see things through it’s lying lens. Anxiety will turn an ice cream cone into a major moral dilemma. What we have to do is talk back to it, speak truth to it. We do this by recognizing the way that anxiety distorts our thinking; these are called cognitive distortions or thinking errors.
Here’s the hand out that I use the most in my office: Unhelpful Thinking Styles You can download it and put it on your ‘fridge or the mirror in your bathroom or just keep the PDF handy on your computer.
This is how it works. You need to call and order a pizza only you don’t like to talk on the phone. Talking on the phone makes you nervous. Your hands start to sweat and your throat starts to close up. You start worrying about making that call. What if they don’t understand you? What if you forget how to order a pizza? What if there are all of these choices and you freeze and can’t remember and the person taking your order thinks you’re stupid?
The first thing you do is take a deep breath (because you have to calm your body down to get to that thinking part of your brain instead of the scared REACT part of your brain). Then you speak truth to those lies.
You look at your handy hand-out posted on the ‘fridge and you say to yourself, “I’m really jumping to conclusions. Why would the order guy think I’m stupid if I get confused by the crust choices? People find those dumb crust choices confusing all of the time. Boy howdy am I practicing some emotional reasoning. Just because I feel scared to order a pizza doesn’t mean it’s actually a dangerous thing to do. It’s not like ordering a pizza on the phone is putting me at any kind of actual risk. And oh my gosh, am I doing some catastrophizing or what? It’s just a pizza order for crying out loud!”
You may still feel the way you feel but this is the first step to dismantling the elaborate false front that anxiety is building around you. You can talk yourself down from this. You can remember that anxiety is a dirty rotten liar but you know the truth or at least you know how to get there.