Psychologist Rob Neils, Ph.D.

Here’s a short, sweet and right on short essay on what you ought to know about anxiety.  They ought to teach this as part of a Life Skills class in high school instead of subject(s) you’ll probably never use…like trigonometry.  Had you learned what’s written below, it could have saved you from a lot of unnecessary misery.

First of all, anxiety is something you have to have in order to stay alive. If you weren’t anxious enough to look both ways before you crossed a street, you could get smacked by a Mack – not the burger…the truck!  Yah, you can temporarily overcome a portion of your anxiety by playing it down, making a joke of it, or vowing to not let it bother you, but that doesn’t get after a cure of it.  Humor is the first refuge of the competent person and it gives resilience to life in hard times.    Life’s like that sometimes: While minding your own business looking for the good, you get slammed by the bad.  You’ve got to stay mindful of danger, but not let your worries turn your neck into a swiveling radar antenna sweeping the environment for the slightest bit of danger.  Scouring for unrealistic danger which can start a dreadful storm of the mind.  Keep your eyes open for danger but don’t let your mind’s eye see more danger than is actually there; don’t let your imagination get away from you.  Don’t let your anxieties end up separating you from life.  Reality has enough bite to it without any need to keep looking for what you “know” will go bad.  The more you worry the better you get at worrying more; it becomes a hard-to-break bad habit.

When your worrying starts eating you up, it’s time to do something about it and I’m not talking about just getting an anti-anxiety pill.  That’s like going to a brake shop when you hear your brakes start to squeak, and getting a set of ear muffs to block out the sound.  Only treating the symptom, not the underlying problem, does nothing to fix the situation.   Later the brakes give out and you wonder why you ran into that tree.  It’s ignoring a warning sign, just like covering over the “check engine light” in the car dashboard, instead of getting the problem checked.  If you have to take anti-anxiety medication to function, you ought to be in therapy to attack the source of the problem.  Don’t stick pills in your ears and blinders on your eyes.  Look for help, listen up and make the necessary changes.  When you start worrying about worrying, it’s time to do something about it.  A little anxiety goes a long ways towards keeping you alive; but too much anxiety closes you down until you get stuck in a bunch of worry circles.

The first clue that you’re in anxiety trouble is when you’re watching you instead of just being you.  When you are the spectator of your own life, you divide yourself into the observer and the observed.  This gets very nasty because the observer automatically becomes a persecutor and the observed becomes the victim.  If this is how you are living your life, then you should consider getting into therapy.  It won’t “go away by itself,” so step away from the compulsive self-reliance, stop wishing and get some coaching.  A therapist isn’t your boss.  Your therapist is a consultant.  A therapist helps you see yourself and explores with you how to make the changes you need to make.  A therapist helps you get yourself back.  With a good counselor, getting a good handle on anxiety can happen in a few short sessions.  A good counselor helps you see yourself and the anxiety in a new light.  That’s actually what’s happening right now as you read this stuff.

Anxiety is different than fear.  Fear has an object that triggers it, like a snake, heights, flying in an airplane, getting milk at the back of the supermarket, or, if you don’t get it treated, fear of leaving the safety of your house.  Anxiety doesn’t have an object that triggers it.  A lot of time is wasted in therapy by therapists who join the futile search for something that can’t be found.  Looking for the cause of anxiety is most often futile because anxiety is more a fear of fear than it is anything real.  The anxious person wants to find the source, the trigger, in hopes that the cause of anxiety can be eliminated at the source – but it’s the wrong source. So you disagree, saying, “My boss makes me anxious.”  Yeah, about what?  He’s got a gun pointed at you and is about to pull the trigger?  Nope.  You’re pretty darn sure he’s going to make things rough on you or maybe fire you…but you are not quite sure what’s going to come down.  Your imagination can trump up and inflate the most awful fears, but you don’t know for sure which one’s going to be your undoing.  You’re most scared of scared; you’re anxious.  You’re in “over-think.”

Be a philosopher with me for a moment and let’s do a little abstract thinking.  Good feelings are like blue sky. Ugly feelings are more like dirt. Good feelings are sky high; ugly feelings bury you. In psychology, the bad feelings are like two big tree roots: depression and anxiety.  All nasty feelings grow out of those two massive roots: one is depression and the other is anxiety. Depression is almost always feeling miserable backwards in time – about what’s already happened.  Anxious is almost always forward looking.  You can’t be anxious about something that’s already happened.  You can be sad, depressed, angry, but not anxious because you already know the outcome.  Anxiety is almost always feeling miserable forward in time.  You’re anxious about what’s going to happen.  Depression is time sickness backward; anxiety, time sickness forward.  That’s why the gurus’ mantras are, “Stay in the eternal now;” “Sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof;” “One day at a time;” “Be here, now.”  Why make today miserable before the imagined disaster of tomorrow even happens.  Anxiety robs you of today and doesn’t even make tomorrow any better for it!  Anxiety is a bad bargain.  It’s not just a waste of time, it’s stirring a cauldron of bat wings, guts, stink and rotted seal fins.  Don’t empty the present by fearing the future.

You know what’s wrong with anxiety? It’s dreadful. But you can change dreadful anxiety quite easily into something much more likely to be helpful to you.  Change dread to curiosity!  Yes, instead of dwelling on how the future is going to crush you, start getting curious about what you’re going to do about it.  Look at the odds that you’ll be successful in overcoming whatever obstacles get in your way in the future. Take a look at the base rate percentage of the things you’ve been successful at when you put your heart, soul, body and motivation into getting something done.  You’ve normally made things turn out better or at least kept them from getting worse – in most all situations.

Yah, everyone’s going to die.  We’re born with one hand wrapped around death and the other grasping hope.  How do things normally turn out for you?  That’s what’ll probably happen again.  In large portion,”If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” That’s why learning to rock climb is so good for anxiety.  You get to a point – called the “crux” – on the climb; you’re sure you’re in BIG trouble, but, since you’re top-roped and can’t get hurt falling, you try.  And . . . son-of-a-gun . . . you make the impossible move!  You’ll probably even do it again.  That’s how confidence is built. The word “confidence” comes from two Latin roots: ”con” meaning “with” and fides” meaning “faith.”  Confidence is, literally, “with faith.” I fly motor gliders. I’ve landed the two-place motor glider that I built myself, 300+ times with the engine off. It’s called a “dead stick” landing.  Suppose I can do it again?  Look at my base rate.  For sure, I can.  I like taking other pilots up, tell them there are two main things to be anxious about: engine and structural failure.  “So,” I say, “Let’s get rid of one of the problems” and I stop the engine.  The propeller stops turning. I like to take other pilots up and show them that if the engine quits you’ve just got to knock off the dread and start figuring how you’re going to stay alive! I’m not in dreadful anxiety, even as we turn final to line up with the runway and have only one chance – do it right or wish you had.  When something goes wrong in my glider or in my life, I cut the dread and start working the problem.  I don’t take a tranquilizer to ”cure” my dread; I get to working the problem.  Even if I’m going to end up a “smoking hole in the ground,” I’m going to work the problem.  Getting my panties in a twist doesn’t help the mind do problem-solving.  Remember: dreadful anxiety can be turned into curiosity and hope arises from your history of doing the best you can, even if it’s just to keep the problem from getting worse.  Even if it gets worse, don’t let it get out of hand. Flush the worry; do what you know you’ve got to do. Dreadful anxiety can be changed by curiosity and remembering how well you’ve done the past.

It diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders is the diagnostic Bible for Psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. Every chapter is a cluster similar diseases of the mind. The chapter on anxiety begins with specific phobias.  “Phobia” is the Latin word for “fear.” Fears of lions, tigers and bears, oh dear.  Then the chapter gets into things like social anxiety, medication caused anxiety and ends with the blockbuster of all anxieties: post-traumatic stress. Right in the middle of the anxiety chapter is . . . guess what?  Think about it for a sec.  Well, it’s “Obsessive-compulsive disorder.”  Obsessive is when you think things over and over; compulsive is when you do things over and over again. Parenthetically, have you ever noticed that when you do something over and over even though you know it’s kind of crazy, you likely do it an odd number of times?  Check it out!  Anxiety is always, always overthink.  I like to tell clients that trying to make sense out of life by using reason only is like trying to catch music out of a radio with a fishnet.  Over-thinking doesn’t make things better, it actually makes things worse. Next time you try to catch the anxious ideas that buzz around your head just imagine that you’re madly swinging a fishnet futilely trying to capture music out of a radio.  Instead of a fishnet use a pencil and write down every single one of your anxious thoughts onto a piece of paper.  Then, the next day when you’re not so wound up, sort those problems into clusters. You’ll find four or maybe five main clusters. You’re also find a lot of redundancies, counting the same problem repeatedly . . . every half-hour or so as you try to get to sleep. At night when you’re in a tizzy, you can think   things over and over until you sickly calculate that you have 5 times more problems than what you actually have. When you are again in your right mind, move those problems around on carefully torn up little slips of paper and put them into groups.  Then put the groups into overlapping circles, each with a name of a major problem area.  Make the circles overlap to see that anxieties are amorphous.  It’s a real lesson in how you think and who you are.  It’s definitely worth doing.

Next, for those of you who have really bad anxiety, panic attacks, here’s some help. It’s called an anxiety “attack” because they’re attacks, not gentle little nudges. These attacks make you think you’re going to go so “clear nuts” that you’ll end up on a non-stop bus to Eastern State Hospital wearing a buckle coat!  Either that or you’ve got some undiagnosed physical illness that’s making you crazy or kill you…real soon. Why such catastrophic imaginations?  Because shortness of breath is such a nasty symptom that it literally “takes your breath away.”  There is nothing like air hunger to grab your whole attention.  As soon as you break into two people, you know you’re in trouble because you’ve not “got yourself together.”  You your breathing more attention when, in fact, in doesn’t help the situation; it actually makes it worse.  When you try to take the regulation out of the lower brain and take over control in your brain rind, you screw breathing up even worse.  You learn to realize that when you figuratively cut yourself in half, the two sides fight and everything get worse.  The two people you’ve become are the “observed” and the “observer.”  They soon to become the “victim” and the “persecutor.”  Taking breathing out of the lower brain and putting it into your brain rind, called the “cerebral cortex,” is a bad move.  What Carl Sagan called “the lizard brain” does its job well when left alone to do it. Just start watching every move you make while trying to play golf.  If you are thinking of how to swing the golf club, watching yourself make every move, you’re going to slice, hook, dub the ball or beat your into the ground and stomp on it.  Over-thinking just doesn’t work.

So what do you do when you feel a panic attack coming on?  Sing out loud! “Little Bunny Foo Foo” works just as well as “What a friend we have in Jesus.”  Any song works, just as long as you sing it out loud.” Singing who will quell the panic attack.  Why?  Because when you’re singing, you can’t screw up your breathing! When you can’t screw up your breeding, you can’t have a full-fledged panic attack.  When you feel the aura of your next panic attack approaching sing out loud.  It’ll stop it. Sounds too easy to be true? Try it. You’ll like it.

Here’s how the typical course of anxiety descends into agoraphobia. (The “agora” in old Grecian times, was the marketplace.) You feel anxious when you have your first panic attack. It really scares you. You figure you have to avoid being around any stress or you’ll have another attack.  You avoid any undue stress.  In fact, even going to the back of the supermarket to get milk, is too much because you know you might not make it there and back without getting wigged out.  Pretty soon you’re avoiding traveling by air.  Your geographical safety zone shrinks.  Pretty soon you’re stuck to close by store in your neighborhood. You can see you’re on the way to becoming housebound to avoid any real or imagined stress. Well at some point in this miserable mess, you read this article, figure the guy seems to know what he’s talking about and you come to North Pines Counseling to get this thing under control. If you think you should make that call do it now because you should’ve already.

Don’t let your anxiety prevent you from doing something about your anxiety!

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