Breaking Free of the Cycle of Anxiety: Step Two

Breaking free of the Cycle of Anxiety: Step One
March 23, 2022
Breaking Free of the Cycle of Anxiety: Step Three
April 6, 2022

Breaking Free of the Cycle of Anxiety: Step Two

***The content in this post is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional mental health treatment.***  

Step Two: Do a Reality Check

In the last post we talked about recognizing your pattern of anxiety. Now that you realize you are feeling anxious, the next step is to do a reality check. Anxiety is a built-in emotion meant to keep you safe. The goal is not to dismiss it or to numb yourself to its messages. 

Start by paying attention to what you are anxious about. There are several ways to hear that anxious voice:  

  • Stop to tune in to yourself. Quit trying to push it away and listen. 
  • Write whatever is running through your head. Spill it out on paper. Plan to rip it up if it allows you to be freer. Scribble, write, or doodle whatever is on your mind. 
  • Ask someone to listen. If needed, explain that you need them to let you talk until you find your own way. No problem solving needed. Perhaps gentle questions will help.  
  • Do a repetitive physical task – walk, wash dishes, mop, crochet and let your thoughts surface.  
  • If you frequently experience anxiety and can’t tie it to a reason, it may be that you need the help of a professional that specializes in treating anxiety to sort out its source.  

Sometimes recognizing what you are anxious about is all you will need. Moving it to your awareness may allow you to deal with it and move on. Other times the next step is not so clear, or the anxious voice is so loud that it may be helpful to do a reality check.  

Act on It, Reschedule It, or Turn It Down

Doing a reality check is asking yourself if this thing you are worried about is urgent or serious, is it a potential problem down the road, or are you worrying about things that are beyond your control? Here are three similar scenarios with different kinds of worries. The goal is to be aware of anxiety’s message so you can act on it, reschedule it, or turn it down.  

Example A:

I was in my office doing paperwork and feeling restless. Something was nagging at the back of my mind, but I had a lot of work to get done. I needed to concentrate. My anxiety was still rising. “Stupid paperwork” I muttered. I wanted to lower my restlessness so I could get back to work. I stood up to stretch and focused on the thoughts running through my brain. I switched my attention off my work and began to notice everything around me. One deep breath and I thought “What is that funny smell?” Huh? I thought I was uptight due to my work. There is a funny smell! A reality check starts with considering your actual safety in the moment. I checked room to room and when I opened the furnace room door, wow! We had a gas leak. My reality check led me to act on my anxiety. We left the building and called for help. All was fine in a few hours. 

Example B:

Same scenario, doing paperwork. Anxiety rising. I am feeling worried. I stop to tune in to my surroundings – there is no imminent risk. I listen to that anxious voice again; I am worried about finances. The anxious voice is telling a story: “Prices are rising, income seems to be going down (the story in my head gets more elaborate from here), and I end up in financial ruin!” This is called catastrophizing – taking one scenario and spinning it into a whole other level. I try to shake it off, but as soon as I look at my work the anxiety spirals up. I stop to do another layer of reality check – there is nothing bad happening soon. I take 10 minutes to think through my financial reality. I am ok in the short run. However, there is some concern. I pull out my calendar and plan a time to review my finances. I make a note to set up a talk with a friend who also owns a small business. I reschedule my anxiety – knowing that with the start of a plan I can get back to my work. 

Example C:

Same scenario. Doing paperwork and feeling restless. I stop to check in with my anxiety. I listen to that anxious voice again. This time it is telling a story about impending doom: “A client nearly fell while walking out of the office. Maybe they twisted their ankle. What if they really hurt it badly, and they go to the ER and they sue me for harm and …. (the story in my head gets more elaborate from here), and I end up in financial ruin!” I am catastrophizing, again. My reality check shows me that I am in no danger now, and that this worry is far-fetched. My client walked to her car and waved goodbye. It is also out of my control. If my client is hurt it is their job to contact me so there is nothing to schedule. I tell the voice, “I hear you, and I am turning down the volume, I don’t need to listen to this message again.” 

A reality check starts with tuning in to your own thoughts and concerns. Experiment with ways to hear yourself. Over time you may recognize a pattern – your tendency to worry about the same sorts of things. Some people find that journaling every day gets them in the practice of hearing themselves. 

The purpose of a reality check is to decide if you are at risk – now, down the road, or not really. This last step can be hard. There are a lot of things we worry about that are outside our circle of influence. In our next post, we will talk more about how to manage your anxiety in each of these three scenarios so that you can strengthen your resilience. 


Laura A. Gaines

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