When you feel anxious feelings, as when you see a yellow traffic light, proceed with caution. Beware of treating a yellow light as if it were a red light. Immobilization, that is, stopping instead of proceeding ahead, perpetuates anxiety problems.
Each of the soothing strategies below for proceeding with caution offers an antidote to one of the 3 Mistaken Strategies that I discussed in Part I of this series.
I'll illustrate each of the soothing strategies with two examples, one from a work situation and one from a couple relationship.
Soothing strategy #1: Ask instead of interpreting or assuming.
As I explained in Part I, when people try to guess what others are thinking, their guesses are almost always wrong, and almost always more negative than the actual reality of the situation.
Asking good questions, by contrast, gathers reliable and relieving data. Even bad news is better than no news because it can lead to building realistic clear action plans
Here’s three suggestions to be sure that asking questions leads to soothing your stress:
1) Questions that begin with open-ended starter-words like How or What than invite more informative responses than yes-no starters like "Can you...?", "Did you ...?", "Are you ....?"
2) Make sure that as you listen to the answers to your questions with your best listening skills. Information only soothes anxiety if you allow yourself to take in the new data.
3) If the answers you receive feel unclear to you or seem discrepant with what you thought you knew, continue with further questions until you fully understand the answers.
I've written more details and practice exercises for effective asking and listening skills in my PT posting on "The Art of Listening: How Open Are Your Ears?" and also in my communication skills website at PowerOfTwoMarriage.
* * *
Jimmy decided to go to his boss, Bob, to ask directly what his boss anticipated with regard to his merit bonus this year.
“What are you thinking, Bob, about my bonus this year?” Jimmy asked Bob.
Jimmy’s boss replied thoughtfully, “I have a real dilemma. On the one hand, you have continued to be a great asset to our company. At the same time, our company has been hit hard by America’s economic difficulties.”
“What are you planning then to do?” Jimmy asked as a follow-up query.
“Let’s sit down together this afternoon and brainstorm together,” Bob answered.
Jimmy’s anxiety lifted immediately hearing his boss’s answers. Yes, there were problems with his forthcoming bonus, but no, it was not because he had done something that had antagonized his boss. Knowing definitely beats speculating, worrying, and stressing. Information is power.
Jimmy had heard that communication in relationships is vital. Asking his boss about this issue that had triggered such anxiety problems led him to realize that communication at work is equally important.
* * *
By several months into their new marriage, Paulette, who was in her late twenties, felt highly anxious about whether her husband Peter, who was several years older and in his second marriage, really loved her. Time for asking, she decided, instead of allowing her anxiety problems to make her increasingly nervous, tense and stressed.
Peter, Paulette asked, “How do you feel about me?”
“Whenever I look at you I feel blessed. Actually, I get scared though. I love you so much that I get anxious that maybe you don’t love me. I’m afraid I’m letting you down, and always worry that you may be angry at me. My parents were pretty much always mad either at me or at each other. Being married to you feels too good to be true.”
“And how do you feel about your former wife?“ Paulette continued. “When I see you being so kind and generous toward her, and especially when I see you giving her money, I feel less-than in your eyes.”
Peter answered, “You and she are day and night. I love you. By contrast, I’m terrified of my ex. She rants and raves, just like my father used to. It’s now five years after our divorce and I still am afraid to stand up to her when we have to discuss anything. I turn back into the 10-year-old kid who was afraid of his dad.”
Again, information is power. As Paulette learned the actual concerns that drove Peter’s tendency to treat his ex-wife more solicitously than he treated her, she realized that her interpretation of his actions had been erroneous. What a relief!
Soothing Strategy #2: Address anxiety-provoking thoughts head-on.
Avoidance of problems exacerbates anxiety about them. By contrast, facing the problem head-on, frightening as that may seem, enables you to pursue solutions to the dilemma. Solving problems cuts anxiety off at its source.
A good way to begin to address your anxiety problems head-on is to list all thoughts that stir up anxious feelings.
Once you've listed the thoughts, circle back through the list, begin asking good questions to get information with regard to your concerns, and then proceed toward creating solutions.
* * *
Jimmy and his boss Bob met later that day in Bob’s office.
Before their meeting, Jimmy had listed the specific concerns that had driven his prior intense anxiety. His biggest concern was how his boss felt about his work. Had he let his boss down this year, given that he had been out with an illness for several weeks?
His second main concern was whether his boss would suddenly fire him. In his last job, he had been suddenly fired with no warning by a new manager. Would this kind of trauma occur again?
Bob began the meeting by explaining to Jimmy, “My latest thought is that maybe I could give everyone IOU bonuses, to be paid when and if the company gets back on its feet. What would you think, Jimmy, of that option?”
Jimmy answered, “It’s a creative one. At the same time, I’d really appreciate at least some tangible cash. How would you feel about giving 20 percent in cash and the remainder as a kind of IOU savings plan?”
“Great idea!” Bob answered appreciatively. “Our cash flow situation could handle that. I like too the way you said 'savings plan.’ I’d be willing to treat your withheld bonus as an interest-bearing loan to the company.”
Jimmy asked about his final concern. “What’s the likelihood I’ll be fired?”
Bob answered frankly, “It is possible that we won’t make it through this downturn. While I’m hoping we’ll be fine eventually, there is real risk. If I do end your job, though, it will be because I’ve had to close the whole company. I can’t do this business without you.” (please continue on p.2)
Jimmy felt vastly relieved. If the business had to close, he could move on to use his skills elsewhere. Meanwhile, with his anxieties about his boss’s views of him alleviated, he could roll up his sleeves and give the company his all.
* * *
Paulette thought about her concerns vis-à-vis her husband Peter whom she had asked to move out. One was how kind Peter was with his ex-wife. Second, she was angry at how Peter ignored her in the evenings, absorbed in watching un-ending televised sports.
Feeling calmer since she had discussed the ex-wife realities, Paulette asked Peter if they could discuss his sportsaholic behavior. As they talked, Peter began to understand the extent to which escaping into sports-watching was antagonizing his wife and undermining his marriage.
To end the temptations of ever-present sports on TV, Peter decided to remove the TV to a back room in the house where he might watch occasional big events. That way he would be less likely to be seduced by the constant TV temptation. Now in the evenings Paulette and Peter again enjoyed talking about their day, playing games together, and reading side-by-side as they had when they had first married.
Soothing Strategy #3: Push thoughts of the future into the future. Focus instead on the present and the very next step.
Holding the future in the immediate foreground, as if the future is in your present, invites anxiety problems. “What if….?” future-focused thoughts generate fear without problem-solving.
By contrast, living in the present, in the here-and-now, promotes a state of flow. Occasional brief glances ahead can clarify where you are aiming and enable you to plan a general strategy of how to get there. Overall, however, staying in Now promotes feelings of well-being.
* * *
Jimmy realized that the angst with which he had been waking up each morning came from “jumping ahead” in his thoughts. Worrying what his boss would be likely to do about this year’s bonus was blocking his focus on doing his job well in the present.
Jumping his thoughts ahead into the future, Jimmy began to realize, had become a cognitive habit. The "What if ...?" habit was provoking needless anxiety in many life arenas: “What if my kids don't turn out ok?” “What if my father’s heart problems lead to an early death?”
Now, as each future-driven thought came up, Jimmy asked himself, “Is there something I can do now about that question?” If yes, he did it. If no, he let the question go, visualizing himself returning the future to its proper place way ahead of him. He then re-focused on the present, on the very next thing he would do, to soothe himself back into his calm zone.
* * *
Paulette recalled the words of a neighbor. “Worry is the interest you pay on something you haven’t yet purchased.”
As she re-focused in the present, Paulette began tuning in to her role in the way she and Peter had been anxiously engaging in mutual marital distancing. In her frustration at her husband’s sports addictions, she had been pushing him away by offering him less and less warmth, appreciation or sexual connecting, serving him irritability instead of affection. Maybe, she realized, if she ceased pushing Peter away and instead reached out to embrace him, their future could be different!
Now, re-focusing on the present when worries about the future popped into her mind, Paulette heard herself singing a Bob Marley song, Everything’s Gonna Be Alright. “Don’t worry, about a thing. Every little thing’s, gonna be alright…”
Paulette smiled. Singing this mantra enabled her to relax, push her future-focused worries out of view, and re-focus on the tasks in the present just that were just in front of her.
* * *
In sum, anxiety is a blinking yellow light that signals a potential problem ahead. Do not stop; instead proceed with caution by asking open-ended questions and resolving the problem. Be sure also if your future is in your present to push it further away, at the same time reminding yourself, "Everything's, gonna be all right."
As one or more of these three steps for reducing anxiety problems between you and key people in your life prove helpful, or do not work, I would welcome your comments.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a graduate of Harvard with a doctorate from NYU, is a Denver private-practice clinical psychologist. Author of From Conflict to Resolution for therapists and, for couples, The Power of Two, Dr. Heitler’s current project, in addition to writing her blog on PsychologyToday, is an interactive online marriage skills course for couples, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.