Prepare for the anxious moment

Hi there, Group. Thanks for your time. I’m grateful for the chance to spend time with you. To listen to this as a podcast, click here.

This week, we’re discussing how to prepare for the anxious moment. We’ve already covered the therapeutic attitude of willing acceptance and differentiating between anxiety and danger. Let’s quickly review. Remember that for all techniques, we’re always trying to orient towards the therapeutic attitude of willing acceptance. When we think about how to get to the therapeutic attitude of willing acceptance, we want to be thinking of our Wise Mind. 

So your Wise Mind is your internal compassionate parent, both participating in and observing you throughout your whole life. Wise Mind has more experience in the part of you that is reactively or fearfully responding to whatever is happening in this moment. Wise Mind has been with you observing you your whole life. She knows the moments you’ve shown up with courage. And also when you’ve lived less than your best life. Compassionate parents have time and space for all of it and want to be there with you. We all have an observational self. Some of us didn’t know it was there and don’t pay attention to it. You can strengthen your access to your wise mind by bringing attention to her. If it doesn’t seem like your Wise Mind knows what to say to you, we’ll teach you how to access that compassionate stance together. Sometimes wise mind uses coping skills to care for you but coping skills are not your path to recovery. Wise Mind is the part of you who relates to painful experiences with patience, perspective, and kindness. He doesn’t prevent you from ever feeling pain, but a strong wise mine alleviates additional suffering and creates the space for variability flexibility and richness in your private experience. 

When we think about anxiety versus danger, there are four different concepts that we want to remember. We want to remember that anxiety sensitivity is a biological vulnerability that some people have because of their biology. We also want to use urgency as a cue to slow ourselves down and differentiate between whether there’s actually an emergency or problem to solve or if we’re feeling uncertain and it’s time to let that any problem solving pass when we feel urgency. We want to reason through stakes and odds because everything feels really risky when you feel anxious, so the stakes will often feel higher than they are. Finally, we want to sort through problems to solve and uncertainties to let pass. We can think about it as music or static and when you figure out what the static is, you want to try to let it go so you can focus on the problems you can solve right now. 

As we shift our attention to preparing for the anxious moment, we want to:

  • identify triggers as opportunities to practice; 
  • predict distressing thoughts, feelings, sensations and interpretations; 
  • use our values to motivate commitment to the present moment;
  • use helpful self-talk to strengthen our motivation and commitment to practice before during and after the anxious moment. 

So first, let’s talk about triggers triggers can be internal and they can be external. External triggers are the things that show up in your environment that making anxiety more likely. Common triggers that come to mind include the kitchen, the door, any part of your home that reminds you that something could go wrong. It could be your car. It could be the bus it could be. Any part of your commute on your way to work, it could be showing up to work, being in a meeting, getting an email, having to give a presentation. There’s all kind of external triggers that are frequent and common for many people. You could also have an internal trigger such as an intrusive thought or anxious sensation that doesn’t necessarily have an extra predictable external trigger. related to it but the internal sensation or thought could show up at any time. 

So we want to shift our way of thinking about those triggers away from bracing and avoiding and over into opportunity. 

So in order to teach ourselves that we can handle the anxious moment. We actually need to go towards our triggers. Trigger those sensations and those thoughts on purpose. So really any time you have either an internal or an external trigger, that’s a huge opportunity to practice and show yourself that you can relate to it differently rather than bracing. You want to see it as an opportunity in terms of predicting your distressing thoughts, feelings, sensations, and interpretations. You want to predict them ahead of time, not because you have to know exactly what’s happening perfectly in your anxious moment. But the better that you predict what’s likely to occur, then the easier it will be to get distance from it. So if your trigger often makes your heart rate go up or often makes you sweat. You might frequently have the same types of intrusions based on certain triggers. These are all helpful to identify beforehand so that when it shows up rather than thinking, “Oh, no, why am I anxious? What’s happening?” You can think, “Oh, yeah. I was expecting this! This happens when I go towards my triggers and this is really my opportunity to practice.” 

The secondary process that’s very common, in terms of predicting distressing thoughts and interpretations, is that you may have sensations and you may have intrusive thoughts and then you may feel hopeless, helpless, or worthless because it’s happening again. So even remembering that, you know, I have this type of thought I have this type of sensation and then my mind says, “oh no, it’s happening again. This is going to happen forever. I’m never going to get out of this.” That’s a common secondary process that you also want to predict because if you can say “oh, yeah, that’s what happens when I do this type of activity” and not act as though it’s truth, then you can get to the other side of it without it feeling true. 

When we think about using values to motivate commitment to the present moment, you really want to just be thinking “why is it worth it to experience this moment?” And so if this whole concept of going towards your anxiety to get through your anxiety makes sense to you, then it’s worth it to get yourself anxious and hang out there really for its own sake so that you can show yourself: Rather than needing to avoid, compulse, get reassurance, or otherwise neutralize your anxious experience, it can be an opportunity for efficacy, to feel strong, and courageous that you can go toward. You can predict what’s going to happen. Go towards it on purpose, handle it yourself, and then get to the other side so it’s worth it, too. Go towards that anxious moment kind of for its own sake. But then it’s also worth it to think through the ways in which avoiding anxiety undermines the life that you want to live. Whether that’s like not being able to spend time with people that you care about in the way that you want or do the work that you want to do. So reflecting on that and then remembering in the anxious moment that it’s a real opportunity because you want to get to the other side of it and be able to do the things that make your life fulfilling can be a way to get through that distressing moment. 

Finally, let’s talk about some helpful self-talk that could strengthen your motivation and commitment in in the anxious moment. And so we want to break it down between three different parts: 

  • your anticipatory anxiety 
  • your situational anxiety 
  • and your post event processing. 

So in terms of anticipatory anxiety, you want to think about anticipatory anxiety as an indication of your past rather than a prediction of your future. Anticipatory anxiety is a feeling, not a fact or prediction. So what happened in the past in a similar situation, you braced and avoided and so now your amygdala is like “hey, watch out here. Here’s that that triggers coming again. I’m going to give you some sensations so that you know to avoid” and you want to override your amygdala and actually say, “Hey, no, it’s okay. We can hang out with this. This anticipatory anxiety is not predicting that anything is going to go wrong. It’s just indicating that in the past. I’ve avoided.” And it’s important to have some amount of self-talk around that anticipatory anxiety so that you don’t avoid again, but rather you make it to the anxious moment where you have the opportunity to learn something new. 

So when you get to that anxious moment again, you want to see it as an opportunity. So, “Great. I was hoping for this. This is my chance. I want to go after my anxiety. I want this to get worse. I want this too. I want this to make me stronger.” 

You really just want to invite in all the sensations, whatever thoughts you’re having, and whatever even secondary process you might be having about uncertainty of how long it will last, or whether it means anything about you, whether it will ever go away. Those interpretations are things you want to invite in. 

Then finally after the experience, you can expect to be sensitized and expect to have the urge to replay. And so you can reframe that as “My mind wants to replay this because I’m doing something I value,” rather than getting caught up in all the self-criticism that often comes after an anxious experience. When people replay, they find things that they’ve done wrong and then use it to beat themselves up and an alternative is just to say, “Yep. I’m sensitized. I’m proud that I did something that I value and I’m just going to let any interpretation or urge to criticize that my mind has. I’m just going to let all of that pass.