Even though I'm pretty computer-challenged, I like to think of our brains as having two operating systems: 1) The emotional, and 2) The rational, objective, critical-thinking system. These systems actually operate out of different parts of the brain: The amygdala, which drives emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, sadness. And the pre-frontal cortex, which controls executive functions like driving a car or balancing our checkbook (mine always seems to crash at this point).
If we're feeling anxious and we stay in that emotional state, our anxiety is going to remain high. While one foot is in the emotional, we want to have the other in the rational objective system. It's just not realistic to think we can turn off anxiety by simply telling ourselves to stop worrying. But we need to bring the anxiety down to a reasonable level so we're controlling it, not it controlling us. So here's a technique my clients--and myself as well--find helpful.
1. Imagine two vertical lines. Label one as "Anxiety" and the other as "Threat." Number each from 1-10 with 1 at the bottom, 10 at the top. Under "Anxiety" 1=totally calm, approaching Nirvana, 10=I'm jumping out of my skin, peeling myself off the ceiling. Under "Threat" 1=no danger, totally safe, 10=the world is coming to an end.
2. Rate your anxiety level on the 1-10 scale. So let's say you're at a 9. Now let's move to the threat scale for a minute. Is there actually something going on right now that's causing your anxiety to be at a 9? Is there a saber tooth tiger right outside the cave? If the answer is "no," then we repeat this mantra: "Nothing bad is happening right now." Do some deep breathing, focusing on some other activity. And note the anxiety level coming down.
3. But if there is an actual threat, we rate it. Say I just got a letter from the IRS wanting to have a little chat about my last year's tax returns. My anxiety is at a 10 going off the chart and I rate the threat at a 9 (Interestingly, when we identify an actual threat our anxiety usually drops a little now that we know what we're dealing with).
4. So, let's analyze the actual threat.OK, I'm scrupulously honest and keep receipts for everything I've ever purchased since 1985. So now the threat has dropped to a 7 and the anxiety is down to an 8.
5. What else about the threat? Well, I've got a great tax guy, Bob, who's done my taxes for years, knows tax law in and out and used to work for the IRS. So now the threat is down to 5 and the anxiety at 6. (Notice the two scales usually don't drop in perfect sync with each other. That's OK; we just want to bring them down).
6. Anything else on the threat? Oh yeah, Bob will go with me to the audit and do most of the talking and assures me that the worst thing that might happen is I may end up owing a little bit and I won't go to prison for tax evasion. The threat now? Down to a 3. And the anxiety? Maybe a 5 or even 4. There's still some anxiety but at least it's gone way down. We're not going to eliminate it, we just want to get it down to a manageable level.
Remember, fear is the presence of a real threat, anxiety is imagined and in the future. This is a good tool for managing anxiety by objectively assessing the threat and problem-solving. This may seem a little cumbersome but with some practice we can get really adept and fast at it. And it puts us in control, not the anxiety
Coming Up: FEARMONGERING