How to Manage Anxiety: Stop Telling Stories!
One of my specialties as a therapist is teaching others how to manage anxiety. In my work with others on this topic, I have found that anxiety is an old friend that we all have. It just depends on how often this friend chooses to come around and how many bags he brings with him when is surprises us and says he is staying with us for a visit.
There are many options for learning how to manage anxiety. On other parts of my website I talk about using mindfulness, avoiding the question “Why?”, and understanding “Thinking errors” as various approaches I have found to be very effective for treating anxiety. As I always tell those I work with, “You need to do what’s best for you.” Whatever your formula for managing anxiety (or stress or depression, for that matter), my experience has taught me that one must find a way to stop telling stories.
The Case of Julie
Let’s take Julie, for example. Julie is an aspiring painter. She has always had a passion for painting but had a high school art teacher who told her “You are not a good enough painter to make a living at it”.
When she chose to forgo going to art school to simply practice the art of painting, she went to local art shows of other artists and told herself “I suck!”. “I could never do this work.” “No one will want my work.” “All of these artists went to an art school”.
She interpreted rejections from studios as more proof that she didn’t have any talent. Her father’s comment about her cousin needing to get a “real job” served as a reminder that she may need to give up on her dream. But, when she was offered a job as a professor at a local art college, she told herself no one would want to learn from an artist who hadn’t “made it”.
The Problem with Stories
Do you see the problem here? What evidence did Julie have for any of her beliefs? The opinion of her art teacher was just that – the opinion of one person. Chances are that, with the billions of people in this Earth, someone would like her work. And, there are plenty of “successful” artists who didn’t go to formal art school.
See the problem now? Our stories always lead to other stories. But, often we don’t have proof for them. When treating anxiety, it’s important to remember that emotions, thoughts, and beliefs are just that – emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. They are not fact. They are automatic and a natural experience of being human. But, that doesn’t mean we have to believe the stories that we automatically tell ourselves.
Breaking down our Stories
Instead, approach your stories as you would a courtroom setting. What actual hard evidence does Julie have that students would not want to learn from an artist who hadn’t “made it”? And, how would you prove what is means to have “made it” in the first place? Proving both beyond a reasonable doubt would likely be difficult.
Thinking of exceptions can also be a great way to manage automatic anxious thoughts. What if Julie listed 4 other examples of how her father does support her career (as opposed to her cousin’s)? Defining terms, such as what is means to “make it” as an artist, also can be helpful. This is the case because there is often much space between “making it” and “failing” or being “a loser” and “a winner”. Life is not that black and white, even if it feels that way.
The Psychology of Stories
Psychology has shown us that we see what we look for. Imagine you decide that what you want more than anything in the world is a Golden Retriever. What are you going to start to see everywhere? That’s right – Golden Retrievers. They are on TV, walking in your neighborhood, and your sister just got one. The population of Golden Retrievers didn’t increase. You just became more aware of them.
For instance, if you see yourself as a failure, you are going to notice and remember the times that you have felt like a failure. Research has shown that we discount things that don’t fit our perception. We minimize a generous offer from that selfish co-worker. Or, dismiss that loving gesture from our partner isn’t genuine. “It’s just because they had a good day” we tell ourselves.
Moving Past Stories
But, when thinking about how to manage anxiety, we must move past those stories. We must learn that our stories are just that – stories. Challenge your thoughts, expand your perspective, and stop contributing to the very stories that contribute to your anxiety (or anything else for that matter). Pause, acknowledge the story, and choose to take a different route. You will be amazed at how this change in perspective can impact your life.
~Ashley Carter Youngblood, LMSW, LMFT, CADC, ADS
Ashley Carter Youngblood is both a Fully-licensed Clinical Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist who has been in the field since 2007. She offers counseling in Kalamazoo, Portage, Mattawan, Battle Creek, Paw Paw, and the surrounding areas of Southwest Michigan. She is passionate about her work with clients, whether it’s providing individual counseling, couples counseling, family therapy, or life coaching. Her specialties include holistic healing/mindfulness, counseling for women, anxiety, couples counseling, and addictions/substance abuse.
I welcome you to contact me or leave any questions or feedback you have about this post. Please keep in mind that the above information is the opinion of an individual, should not be considered medical advice, and is for entertainment/educational purposes only. I write these blogs as an expression of my passion for wellness and with the hope to be able to help as many people as possible. Therefore, I would encourage anyone seeking mental health advice to contact a therapist in your area who can better evaluate your situation and provide you with case-specific information for treatment. Also remember, if you are experiencing an emergency, contact 911 or present yourself to your nearest emergency room.
Thanks for reading.