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This is a blog post I’ve avoided finishing for over 18 months now, mostly because I haven’t been certain just what I wanted to say. This topic is challenging for me personally. One reason is that it is an attempt to address some issues friends and coaching clients have had around working with therapists, which is one of the reasons for my uncertainty (i.e., I’ve been trying to find the right words.)

Another reason is that therapy is a BIG topic. Therapy isn’t just one flavor or one kind – it is a variety of approaches, theories, techniques and beliefs, and I could do nothing but write about therapy in this blog for a year and only scratch the surface.

So please see today’s blog post as simply a brief discussion of why therapy can be useful in our work to overcome anxiety.

What CAN Therapy Do For Us?

I’ve already written about the uses of medication in the fight to overcome anxiety. (See my post HERE.) Therapy can be another highly effective tool in this fight!

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The first great strength therapists can bring to our work with anxiety is that they can be great listeners. The good ones will sit with you and let you unburden your fears, and hold those fears with respect.

That alone can be a tremendous gift. They can help you create a space where you are free to be completely honest, including with yourself. They can help you craft a situation where you can cry, be weak and sad and depressed and fearful, and NOT have to pretend that you feel anything else.

The second way therapy can assist us is how a good therapist can help us sort out where in our thinking we are converting a problem into a crisis, and help us figure out a more lucid, problem-centered approach for that issue. They can be great thinking coaches – and we need to be better thinkers around our fears.

A third gift of good therapy is that we have someone to help us hold us accountable to ourselves for pushing ahead in the face of our fears. (This is also really a coaching function – just like a football coach might do for his team.)

They can help us set milestones and encourage us even when the work gets hard, scary or overwhelming. They can gently push us when we’re feeling like we’d rather just hide or delay in the work.

A fourth capacity therapists have is that they are NOT part of our family or friendship network. They are impartial but on OUR side allies in the fight. Their mission is to help US – not make us conform to family rules or judge us for where we are failing or chastise us for not working hard enough – but simply to help.

So I hope it’s clear that therapy can be a fierce collection of tools in our march towards freedom from anxiety. Having said that the world of therapy is not a one-stop-shopping experience for most of us wrestling with anxiety. There are different kinds of therapists, obviously – psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and licensed clinical social workers.

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And the variety doesn’t end there. There are a LOT of different approaches that these professionals take in their work, and one size definitely does NOT fit all. So what’s a person supposed to do when they are trying to figure out what works best for this work with anxiety and fear?

Choosing a Therapist

AS I mentioned earlier I could write thousands of words and dozens of blog posts on the various kinds of therapeutic approaches offered in today’s world. I will instead offer this reminder from one of my recent posts: as far as finding help with anxiety and fear therapy potentially offers help in sorting out problem from crisis – i.e., making us clearer and more effective thinkers.

So how do we figure out what kind of therapy/therapist can help us do that work? I wasn’t sure how to move forward. Then I remembered something one of my dearest/closest friends (who also happens to be a therapist) said to me once a while back.

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We were talking about what made a therapist successful, and he told me that some interesting research pointed to one significant factor: the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client AS DECIDED BY THE CLIENT.

In other words if the client felt comfortable and safe with the therapist then the therapy stood a much better chance of success. That was significantly more important than any specific type of therapy that was being done.

So our mission isn’t really about figuring out, from the variety of kinds of therapists or therapeutic approaches, which one we should try to find. Our mission simply becomes connecting with a therapist that we click with on a personal level.

I suspect that key in this clicking is the therapist needs to be someone we feel is LISTENING to us. I’ve seen similar research done around the effectiveness of physicians with their patients, and in that research as well it seems that the doctors with the most effective connection with their patients are also the most successful physicians.

What Does This Mean for You, The Consumer?

This means that you have a simple mission when you decide to seek therapy. You need to literally go shopping. Identify two or three therapists you’d like to check out, then go check them out. Sit with them, have a yak session with them, see what you think. You may even be able to do some of that over the phone and save a trip. Don’t talk for one minute though – talk for several, and ask questions like

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How do you treat anxiety?
What is your personal experience with anxiety?
What is the role of medication in the treatment of anxiety?

Listen for their answers, not so much for what they say as to how their answers resonate with you. Do you sense the potential for connection with this person? Do they listen to you, or talk over you when you’re talking? Or even worse, talk DOWN to you? Do you feel comfortable talking with this person?

One more thing to consider as you work to find a therapist. Don’t treat them as the final source of all wisdom. Here’s a comparison story to clarify what I mean: in my parent’s generation doctors were treated as final authorities. Whatever the doctor said was the ultimate truth. Sadly too much of that is still present in our thinking about doctors.

Yes, they are subject experts. Yes, they know a heck of a lot. But they are not final authorities – they can’t be. Doctors make mistakes. Doctors are not living YOUR experience. They are expert consultants, and need to be deeply respected for their professional opinions. But in the final analysis we have to make the decisions about our own health care.

And, perhaps most importantly, if they can’t be bothered to really listen to you, treat you as a peer and someone who has information they need to do their jobs effectively, then their help is going to be crippled to begin with. And if you don’t feel comfortable or safe with them you’ll be second-guessing the counsel they give you and doubting yourself in the process.

The same is true for our mental and emotional health. Therapists have extensive training, knowledge and experience. They are not just some schmoe from the street. They have important things to say and it makes sense to listen to them.

But they need also to listen to US. And whether we’re talking about physicians or therapists perhaps the single most important thing they can do for us is LISTEN to us first, THEN offer counsel/advice/recommendations.

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We Need All the Help We Can Get!

Therapy can be an enormous asset for us in our fight with anxiety. It only makes sense to take advantage of the help we can find when we can find it. Yeah, I know, therapists cost money. And it means leaving the house – harder if you’re fighting agoraphobia – been there, did that. It may mean having to decide to NOT see a particular therapist after meeting them if you’re not getting any sense of connection – that was hard for me too.

Doesn’t matter. What matters is getting the help we need. Find the money. It’s amazing what we can find money for when we need it. (And often therapists will work on a sliding scale – ask.) Get out of the house. It’s worth the sweat and fear. Shop and decide who connects with you best.

If you’re fighting a war it only makes sense to get the best weapons you can, right? In the war with anxiety one formidable weapon can be the help a good therapist can provide. Hit me here at the blog or at my email address if you want to discuss this further, and let me know also if you have your own stories or experiences with therapy.

Next up – getting around the feeling of despair.

Feelings. I talk about them a lot in this blog. I often hear the word from my coaching clients, I see the word in the emails I receive, and yes, I have my own feelings. 🙂 Anxiety itself is a feeling, and it is often the seed of other feelings – anger, rage, sadness, depression, grief. To be afraid is to FEEL afraid, anxious, worried, scared. To be anxious is to be, too often, at the mercy of our feelings.

In this Fear Mastery work I say all the time that one of the skill sets we need to break free of anxiety is to “discount” the meaning of our feelings – specifically, the emotional (and physical) responses we have from Flight or Fight when we’re anxious. Some people have taken that to mean that they shouldn’t HAVE those feelings –that they should squish, bury and hide away those feelings from themselves.

Don’t do that. “Discounting” isn’t the same as shutting away. And shutting away our fears (and the thinking that generates those fears in the first place) is at the heart of why we’re anxious in the first place. No, our mission is to HAVE our feelings – let them surface, look them in the eye – but also dispute what they heck they seem to be saying to us.

HANG ON – You’re Saying it is GOOD to Feel Anxious?

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We anxiety-fighters don’t have a great relationship history with our feelings. It can, for many of us, seem like our feelings are petulant children or, worse, terrible slave-drivers, throwing us around the room, trashing our days, ruining our time with friends and family, making a mess of our lives. Our feelings can come to be unwanted house-guests that we just want to go away…

Part of the problem is we only poorly understand what the heck feelings ARE. Feelings are, among other things, ways to motivate us to take action. When we feel hungry we eat. (I know I do.) When we feel sleepy we find a flat surface and lie down. (Or, if you’re at work, put your head on your desk.) When we feel angry we want to DO something – break a dish, shout, take action in some way to deal with the thing that is making us angry.

All of that makes a ton of sense. Emotions/feelings are much older than conscious thought – way, way older. Like hundreds of millions of years older. Smart came very late in the game. Animals need to take action, and in the absence of clocks, calendars and appointment books feelings are what motivate them to take action in different situations.

So emotions are STRONG. They need to be. You can’t, if you’re a water buffalo, ignore those hunger pangs. Not eating is a bad idea! And this applies even more to immediate, physical danger. Living things need to be alert and responsive when their lives are threatened, yes?

Enter human beings and anxiety. We didn’t lose any of the feelings that helped our ancestors survive before humans had the bulging brains we have now – we just stacked those smarts on top of those feelings. That can be a tremendous strength, if we understand the relationship between feelings and thinking. It can also a key element of anxiety – which is why I’m writing and you’re reading this blog.

When we start to imagine/picture something bad happening in our future, and that bad thing scares us in our thinking, well, we’re going to have feelings. We’re going to have feelings because we’re triggering Flight or Fight. We’re hard-wired that way. As I keep saying here that’s a GOOD thing – we need that system to stay frosty in case of real danger.

So you are going to have feelings when you’re anxious! And they won’t be the happy, fuzzy feelings you have when you see a bunny or the face of someone you love. (Or, in my case, a container of Baskin-Robbins ice cream – Vanilla, please, or I’m also good with Cookie Dough.) Nope, they will be anxious, lets-get-the-hell-out-of-here kind of feelings – the feelings that would get you moving in the presence of real, physical, life-or-death danger.

Which means yes, you do need to feel your feelings, if only because you’re going to, whether you want to or not. And it won’t serve you at all to simply try and squish those feelings. It isn’t like you have a big box you can shove your feelings into and lock the lid. We’d like to THINK we can do that – but the end result of all that attempted squishing is, in fact, anxiety.

But I Don’t LIKE These Feelings!

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Yup – I hear that. Then again, those feelings really are not the problem. It is the thinking behind them that are the problem. Feelings are simply the messengers of your thinking or, more accurately, your mental responses to your environment. In non-self-aware creatures (like that mouse in your basement) that thinking is mostly learned experience. Don’t eat cheese sitting on wood platforms that smell of metal. Do chew open bags that smell like flour. Run away from large furry things that purr.

In us it is a much richer (and potentially more anxious) universe of mental activity. We can conjecture/speculate about the future – and in having that ability we open ourselves up to some serious worries, if we’re not clear on the difference between crisis and problem. All it takes for us is to think we’re in the middle of a crisis – life-or-death – and that’s enough to power up Flight or Fight.

Which means we’re going to have feelings! And their mission is to GET US MOVING – either running (best choice) or fighting (remove this scary thing from my life right now!) Like them, don’t like them, try to bury them, knock yourself out – you’re going to have feelings.

So it isn’t about liking or not liking our feelings, any more than it is about liking or not liking your eye color or your height. They just ARE. The real question is what do we DO with those feelings as we’re having them?

I have two answers for you –

Don’t Start the Wave / Ride the Wave

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The first answer is, of course, to avoid firing up Flight or Fight in the first place. And that’s the eventual goal of this work – to learn to NOT let our thoughts scare us the way they do now. As we get more and more skillful in our practice of converting crises back into problems in our thinking we will be less and less likely to get anxious in the first place.

Along the way, however (and essential to the work of reaching that end goal) we need to learn to ride the wave of our emotions once Flight or Fight is engaged. This is the perfect place for a surfing metaphor, so grab your board shorts…

Surfers understand that waves are NOT, by their nature and size, controllable. You don’t paddle out to surf with the expectation that you’re going to control ANYTHING but your reaction to the wave – period. When you’re starting out you pretty much suck at wave-riding. You get tossed around a lot, you feel helpless a lot of the time, and you’re convinced you’re never going to get it right.

But you do get better at it, with practice and determination, and part of what helps you get better is learning to just ride the wave rather than fight it. And that’s a great parallel with the feelings of Flight or Fight. Once we activate that mechanism, no matter HOW much we want to control it, it is going to do its thing.

And, as in surfing, the more we get freaked out by the wave of our feelings the worse we make it! Which, at the start, makes us even crazier. And even after we learn this crucial lesson about feeling our feelings, allowing them to just happen, we still have to practice discounting the meaning of those feelings.

That’s why discounting the MEANING of those feelings is so central to this work. Those intense feeling amplify our fear for two reasons: 1) we label them as bad, scary, evil, linking them to the thoughts that start those feelings in the first place, and 2) we’re afraid that they are never, ever going to stop/leave us alone.

ALL of that fear is about the future – yes? Every last bit of it. The future is the problem – not the feelings. The heart of all of this is the meaning we give our feelings. And meaning is a mental process, a learned process.

That doesn’t mean we set out to makes ourselves fearful, it just means that, with a combination of lack of understanding and worry about the future, we’ve learned to scare ourselves silly with our thinking and our physical and emotional reactions.

Here’s some really good news: you only need to get a little ways down the road of this work to see the results start to happen. That doesn’t mean you’ll turn a corner and suddenly it will be easy.

You have to do the work, and that means ups and downs, good days and bad days. What I mean is that you’ll begin to get it, begin to feel yourself NOT making it worse, begin to get skillful at both allowing your feelings and discounting their importance to you (when you’re anxious.)

Please don’t take my word for any of this! Nope, paddle out yourself and start the work. The waves are not good or bad – they just are. Your feelings are not good or bad – they just are. They are not prophets of doom, they don’t have certain knowledge of the future (any more than you or I do), and they can’t hurt you.

But they can scare you – until you begin to reframe what they MEAN. Then they start to become less and less frightening. There will be definite bumps – days or even weeks where the work seems endless and deeply frustrating. Which is to be expected. We, most of us, have spent a lot of time (years or decades) scaring ourselves witless with our thoughts AND our feelings.

Just don’t forget there will also be victories, and slow and steady progress, and you’ll reach a point where you’re aware that you just tried to scare yourself, and it didn’t really happen. You’ll have found that you’re starting to learn to ride the wave.

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