Everyone is feeling some anxiety right now and frankly, why wouldn’t we be?
But it’s worth remembering that humans are constantly anxious. Here are five reasons why, followed by five ACT-based techniques to handle anxiety like a human being.
Five Reasons Why We’re Constantly Anxious
1. We’re programmed to see the bear
Imagine your ancestor saw a strange blob on the horizon and turned to a friend and said…
‘Is that a bear or a blueberry bush’?
The optimistic friend said ‘it’s a blueberry bush’ and skipped merrily over, but your anxious ancestor hung back, fearing a bear.
Even if the optimistic friend was right and got a nice lunch, it would have only taken one error for them to be a nice lunch. Meanwhile your pessimist ancestor missed lunch, but lived to pass on their anxious genes (to you)…
2. The double-edged sword
Humanity’s special weapon doesn’t look like much, but since developing language we have been able to communicate risks verbally and then plan ahead to solve them.
This is an incredible tool for solving problems but it is a double-edge sword, which means we can create anxiety at any given moment.
As a result we are the only species that can sit on a beach in Tahiti with a fruity cocktail and STILL be anxious that maybe we drink too much, or that our choice of hatwear is a little last season.
3. Media and social media
I just did an experiment – by looking at the news for 1 minute I found stories not only about Corona, but also animal cruelty, climate change and the certainty of global recession.
We have created a world with unparalleled riches, but also unlimited access to worrying news. So remember the golden law…
Many of us can handle bad news if we know how to respond to it. But uncertainty – will I catch this virus, will my family – is especially anxiety producing because the fact is WE DON’T KNOW. And your mind would prefer anything to not knowing.
However, this is where the story gets really
anxiety inducing interesting.
5. We try to control it
Despite anxiety being an inevitable part of being human, many people see it as something to be avoided or controlled.
The problem is, we can’t avoid or control anxiety.
Imagine I put a gun to your head and tell you not to feel anxious. Could you do it?
By seeing anxiety as something we can control or need to avoid, we set ourselves up to become anxious about our anxiety.
This leads us to try and avoid anxiety by avoiding the things that make us feel anxious.
If this becomes a behavioural pattern it means we start organising our lives around avoiding anxiety rather than the things that make life meaningful. This is called experiential avoidance, – a significant factor in many forms of mental distress because it both diminishes our lives in the short term and makes anxiety worse in the long term.
Five ACT-Based Ideas to Deal with Anxiety
1. Make a plan
Worrying about the future is not the same as deciding what to do. And while your plan isn’t going to be perfect, you are never helpless.
So work out what’s in your control and then make a plan to manage the risks as you see them. Inform yourself of the facts, but no more. Try to limit exposure to armchair experts on social media.
That said, however good your plan is don’t expect it to free you from anxiety (because that’s impossible). So you will need to learn how to…
2. Drop the rope
The problem with anxiety is that the harder we try to avoid it, the stronger it becomes.
It’s like being in a tug of war with some huge monster. You are pulling with all your might because in between you and the monster is a huge, bottomless pit. You are spending all your energy pulling because you are sure if you lose you’ll be pulled into the pit.
But the harder you pull the harder the monster pulls.
What’s the best thing to do?
Well your mind will tell you to keep pulling harder. But the monster never seems to tire.
What’s the alternative?
DROP THE ROPE!
3. Pivot Towards What Matters
Anxiety is the price we pay for caring about something. This means we can pivot our attention to focus on whatever that thing is for you.
My anxiety mostly relates to my young family, because I want to protect and care for them. I realise I can’t protect them completely which makes me anxious, but I can do some things. My pivots include challenging cars which speed past our house (we live opposite a playground and yes, I literally run after them), lobbying the council to install speed bumps (they did), and buying this handsome sign.
Mark Freeman talks here about pivoting away from the fear that we are going to lose a family member (see 7 min 18).
If you feel anxious about Corona Virus, identify what matters to you in this situation. How could you pivot towards that, and do something meaningful in the service of what really matters to you, even when you’re feeling anxious?
4. Practice Self-Compassion
In this video Steve Hayes explains a great exercise to view anxiety from a stance of self-compassion. Self-compassion is a key technique for depowering anxiety and changing our relationship to it so that we can ‘drop the rope’ (see 7 mins 15 for the exercise):
5. Further resources
My favourite ACT resources on this topic are:
- Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong by Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene
- Blog posts on the ACT approach to anxiety and other painful emotions are here and here.
- This is a great list of further evidence-based strategies for dealing with anxiety
- If you want to see a therapist, coach or counsellor who can take you through these ideas, go here.
- This is a NYT article about someone who tried out ACT for their anxiety
- Dr Amanda Super has online courses which teach self-compassion.
I will update this list regularly – feel free to suggest ideas in the comments.