Anxiety is Not the Problem
There’s a lot of anxiety around these days, for very understandable reasons.
But I want to suggest that anxiety is really not the problem. The problem is our relationship to anxiety.
When we get anxious, the amygdala, the threat center of our brain, turns on, which in turn turns off our prefrontal cortex, our thinking brain. As a result, we see the world in a distorted way. We start to misinterpret information as threat, and believe that our thoughts are facts, instead of just thoughts. We may feel that something bad is about to happen, and so we start to feel more and more anxious.
How can we get out of this spiral? As a clinical psychologist and researcher at Harvard, here’s what I’ve helped my clients do, from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to single mothers in poverty and individuals coming out of jail: a simple, self-assessment process called the TEB cycle.
TEB stands for thoughts, emotions and behavior. It is a way to understand what's happening in the brain, and to slow down the brain so you’re more equipped to break that spinning cycle. Just the pause itself is helpful. You’re activating your prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of your brain, you’re slowing down the hijack by the limbic system. As some of the youth I work with say, it’s a way of cooling off the brain.
And then we ask “Okay, what thoughts am I thinking ? How do they make me feel? What do they make me do?" Let’s look at these three parts more closely.
With an attitude of curiosity, explore the thoughts in your mind. You might ask, “What thoughts am I thinking? What am I saying to myself? What is my perception of what’s happening here?” This inquiry is a kind of mindfulness practice – we’re not judging the perception, or judging ourselves for having it. We’re just looking to see what it is. Sometimes, it can be helpful to write down what you're saying to yourself. The helps you to slow down more, and to see your thoughts more clearly.
Now, seeing clearly may be difficult. You may be experiencing ‘monkey mind’ where you’re jumping from thought to thought, driven by the anxiety. But you can notice that too – seeing that the mind is like a nervous monkey is a good way of not believing it so much.
Next, we can ask “How do I feel right now?” Check in with both your emotional state and your physical body. For example, if you’re feeling fear or nervousness, maybe the heart is pounding. Maybe you’re sweating. Again, just pausing in this way can slow down the anxiety cycle, and alert you that you may not be in the best place to respond wisely to a given situation.
You might also notice that these feelings are coming from the thoughts you’re having. It’s a cycle: the thoughts are feeding the emotions, and the emotions may be paralyzing the mind. But by knowing where you're spinning, you're better equipped to actually handle it. Bring mindfulness into your experience, allowing emotions to just be, without trying to change them.
Finally we can ask, “What am I doing now, and how might I change that?” Often, when you're anxious, the behavioral response is to avoid, to try to push away whatever makes you anxious. Avoidance could be anything you do to bring that anxiety down, from actually avoiding the problem to numbing out. See if that’s happening for you.
Of course, avoiding has a short-term benefit because it makes you feel momentarily better. The problem is, it's teaching your brain that the only way you can tolerate anxiety is by avoiding situations, people, or emotions. And so it gets more and more difficult to approach your fears and to face anxious moments.
What can be done instead? Again, go back to the TEB cycle. Maybe, when you notice your thoughts clearly, you don’t have to believe them, and can consider different alternatives. Maybe you can be kinder to yourself about your emotional response. Maybe you can find a way to approach your challenge a little bit at a time.
This is what I mean that anxiety, itself, is not the problem. If you can change your relationship to anxiety, it can be no big deal. And then, a strange thing can happen. I’ve found that I actually like anxiety because it helps me know what's going on. It’s a signal that something is up and requires attention. It can actually become a friend.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, President of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), and an expert in CBT. Dr. Marques’s work focuses on empowering individuals to understand and overcome their anxiety.