When Anxiety Just Falls Away
It can be what you don’t do that counts.
Posted Feb 12, 2020
There’s a funny Mad TV skit in which comedian Bob Newhart, as a psychiatrist/therapist, delivers his "five dollars for the first five minutes, then no cost after that" therapy deal, and we discover that his simple solution to almost every aberrant behaviour presented to him is ‘Stop it!’ (You may well have seen it; it has been viewed on YouTube many thousands of times.)
It is funny because it is so preposterous. And yet. As a therapist, and as an individual, I have found that sometimes it is, indeed, the most effective way to deal with negative thinking and unrealistic fears.
I used to have a fear of flying. Long ago, I was on a flight from San Francisco to London when there was nasty turbulence – the kind that results in suspected heart or panic attacks and doctors on board being asked to identify themselves. I got over that, with the aid of a highly effective detraumatisation technique, but, as I had no reason to fly at the time, I started to undo the good work by paying too much attention to tabloid newspaper scare stories about the dangers of metal fatigue, mid-air collisions, pilots on cannabis, etc.
Then, terrifyingly, I had to take a long-haul flight. Sitting in the airport lounge as a complete bag of nerves, it suddenly hit me how ridiculous I was being. I thought, ‘Pilots know how to fly and they cope with turbulence every day. The rest of it is one in a million stuff. So, enough now!’ And, just like that, I ended my fear of flying. Indeed, not only did I make two eight-hour flights without any problem but also coped calmly with an internal flight so bumpy that it could have been a roller coaster.
I once worked with a young architect named Greg who was terrified of giving presentations because he feared that zits would pop up on his face while he was speaking. He had always felt confident giving presentations until one occasion when a colleague congratulated him and then suggested toothpaste as a remedy for an angry spot on his cheek, which Greg hadn’t even noticed. It was enough to set him off on a spiral of negative expectation that affected his performance.
I taught him a number of anxiety management techniques, which he found extremely helpful, but he, too, kept feeding his fear by feverishly searching the internet for more. Then he happened to reveal that, in his late teens, he had been plagued by impotence for a year because of anxiety about his sexual performance. I asked what had ended it, and it was nothing other than his reaching the point where he just didn’t want to be that way anymore. We were able to make use of that great resource of letting go in dealing with the current anxiety.
Bakeet, seeking help with a relationship blip, wondered if he needed to work on the fact that he had had a very trying first year in this country, when he had arrived alone 18 years ago with virtually no English. He had been enormously successful in making his way, showing great character and resourcefulness, so I wondered why he wanted to address this. It turned out that it was a friend who had convinced him that he just must have suffered negative consequences. Bakeet was very ready to ‘stop it’ at my suggestion.
Another client wanting help coping with unexplained back pain responded wonderfully to hypnotic techniques, which liberated her. Yet she couldn’t shake the pain she experienced daily on her train commute to work. She had assumed she would need to manage pain on her journey, so she frantically tried to calm her breathing and carry out visualisations, all the time — in effect, focusing on pain by checking in to see if it was there, and thus creating an expectation which was duly fulfilled. It was when she stopped and started expecting instead to feel fine that she finally let go of pain.
Anxiety can be developed or maintained by negative thinking, and learning effective techniques to lessen it is essential. But sometimes it is only when we get to the point where we think, ‘this is ridiculous: stop it’ that the anxiety disappears and we no longer have to ‘manage’ it. Because managing can mean paying attention to it and keeping it real, whereas ‘that’s enough’ is about letting it go.