Anxiety…Part of the Human Condition
Anxiety is common, affecting nearly 20% of the US population every year. Some people describe themselves as born worriers, others have specific phobias like fear of public speaking, while others experience anxious thoughts as a manifestation of underlying issues with depression. Anxiety can be experienced as anxious thoughts and feelings, a wide variety of physical symptoms, or a mix of both.
In traditional Chinese medicine, emotions are the source of most chronic illness. I work with many people who have anxiety, and the vast majority of them have found acupuncture to be helpful for both their mood and any associated physical symptoms. Acupuncture works by modulating the nervous system, so it is particularly well-suited to help relieve stress. However, acupuncture can also be a tool to help facilitate the self-help work you do, either on your own or with a counselor, so that your anxiety gets better faster and is less likely to come back.
In my own life, I’ve found the work of Dr. David Burns and TEAM-CBT (a particular type of cognitive behavioral therapy) to be effective and quick to show results. It also helps to permanently rewire the brain and make a person less prone to anxiety in the future. It’s truly been life-changing for me.
I’m feeling anxious right now…what can I do?
Stop reading this handout, and follow along with this five minute video featuring progressive muscle relaxation. It’s a proven method for dropping the body/brain out of fight or flight mode.
Let’s Reframe—Don’t skip this part
It might sound strange, but if you truly want to stop feeling anxious, the very first thing you need to do is acknowledge all the ways your anxious thoughts and feelings help you, as well as the awesome things they say about your value system. For example, anxious thoughts can keep you vigilant and protect you from danger, and they can motivate you to prepare and do really great work. They show that you’re responsible and not reckless, and that you care deeply about others and what they think of you. When I do a reframing exercise for myself, I try and think of at least four to six positive things my difficult thoughts and feelings do for me or the great things they show about me as a person, and then I write them down on a piece of paper.
Why is this part so important? At the core of anxiety is a kind of magical thinking; we have an irrational belief that if we stop worrying, something terrible will happen. Anxiety is your brain’s attempt to keep you safe. Imagine your unconscious mind, the part of you that is responsible for your survival, as an extreme helicopter parent. It sees every small risk as potential disaster, and hovers nearby, shouting at you to be careful. If you ignore this helicopter parent, or tell it to go away, is that likely to work? No. It will shout louder. Instead you have to say, “Thank you, I have the message, and I’m paying attention. You can sit down on that bench and rest while I play.”
When I work on an anxious thought or feeling, I imagine that I have a magic dial, and I tell my brain, “I am listening to you. I’m not going to completely stop being anxious, because I know you’re trying to protect me and I see your value. Instead, I’m going to dial this feeling down to a level that it can serve its purpose, but I can be happier. I will be more effective if I feel calm, relaxed and happy.
Understanding anxiety and how to treat it
Now that we’ve talked about reframing, it’s time to move to treatment. In an excellent series of podcasts, Dr. Burns explains the four main models of anxiety used to successfully treat all types of anxiety, including phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder (click on the links below for each complete podcast):
- The Cognitive Model—Thoughts involving the prediction of danger trigger anxiety, and treatment involves teaching a person to identify the cognitive distortions in their thoughts.
- The Exposure Model—If you are looking to completely remove your anxiety, you will need to take the courageous step of confronting your fears. There are different types of exposure techniques that can be effective.
- The Motivational Model —In order to let go of anxiety, it’s important to first recognize all the ways anxious thoughts can help you, and all the great things they say about your core beliefs and values. Once you are able to fully acknowledge the benefits of your anxiety, it’s easier to let it go. This model underlies the reframing technique.
- The Hidden Emotion Model—Over the course of his many decades in practice, Dr. Burns found that anxiety is often caused by some hidden emotion in the person’s immediate life. They are being too nice, and trying to bury some kind of forbidden feeling, sometimes anger, loneliness, or wanting something they think they’re not supposed to. Once a hidden emotion is brought to the surface and expressed, the anxiety can disappear very rapidly.
Dr. Burns has a free course on anxiety that is a collection of his podcasts related to the various types of anxiety and effective treatment methods. They’re a great place to start if you’re curious and would like to learn more. If you’re ready to get started making change, I highly recommend his book, When Panic Attacks. Written in a workbook format, it will walk you through how to do a daily mood log (the cognitive model), as well as various techniques you can use to eliminate your anxiety.
We all need help
Sometimes we need extra help. Asking an expert for help is a great idea—another person’s presence keeps you accountable and their advice helps you make faster progress. Please contact me if you’d like a list of the therapists I refer to in the Fox Cities. I’m always looking to expand my network, so please let me know if you have a good resource as well.