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Anxiety

Anxious? The Best Defense Is a Good Offense

Worried? Stressed? Time to step up.

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Kate’s been anxious. She turned in her report last week a few days late and now is thinking, actually obsessing, that her supervisor is probably pissed at her. Each time she hears her coming down the hall, she closes the door to her office. She’s winces each time she opens her email. It’s only a matter of time, she thinks, before the shoe drops.

Luis forgot his wedding anniversary, didn't get her a present. He mumbled out an excuse to his wife when she handed him her present to him. She said it was fine, but sensed her feelings were hurt. He’s been trying to make amends by offering to make dinner, being nicer, but is deliberately avoiding bringing it up again.

What Kate and Luis have a common are a couple of things. Both are feeling stressed and anxious by what they did, or actually didn’t do, and both are trying to cope by trying to avoid the issue as much as possible. Essentially, instead of talking about the elephant in the room, they are trying to ignore it. Someone else may do the same by failing to tackle the pile of bills on the kitchen counter or avoiding calling a doctor for a pain that won’t go away by falsely believing that it somehow magically will.

What they are understandably but unfortunately doing is falling into their little-kid brain and actually behaving the same. This is what children do when they fail to tell their parents that they actually got into trouble at school that day, throw away the test paper with the bad grade, or instead of picking up the clothes or toys they were to clean up and felt overwhelmed by, stashing them under the bed. If I don’t mention it, or they don’t mention it, or if I hide it, or they don’t look, the anxiety of possibly getting in trouble will somehow blow over – again magical thinking.

Sometimes this works – for the child, for the adult. Maybe the supervisor gets tied up with other problems, and doesn’t say anything, or actually isn’t really upset. Or Luis’ wife really lets it go, or she, too, emotionally sweeps it under the rug. But over the long haul it’s not a good way to run your life. For the best defense isn’t playing defense at all but playing offense. Talking about the elephant in the room, running toward what you fear.

This can be difficult to do because you have to learn to override the little-kid brain. But if you can, it has certain clear advantages. Here are the obvious ones:

You put the problem to rest

Rather than Kate living in dread and obsessing for…forever, by stepping up the problem can be done with. And if there is an underlying problem, for example, that the deadlines for reports are too tight given her workload, this too get be put to rest. So too for Luis who can apologize to his wife as an adult in a sincere way, or if part of him thinks that presents for anniversaries are someone perfunctory and a waste of money, say so.  

You control the process

By playing offense you can control what goes down. Kate and Luis can choose when and how to talk to the supervisor or wife when they are prepared, rather than unexpectedly getting caught off guard when the supervisor suddenly turns the corner or Luis’ wife brings up the anniversary again three days later at dinner. Kate and Luis have time to map out what they want to say and how they want to say it. Ditto for the bill avoider: Rather than waiting for the bill collectors to knock on their door or send them a threatening letter, they cut them off at the pass.

You build up your ability to approach anxiety

This is one of life’s challenges and goals – to learn to not avoid anxiety and anxious situations but instead approach them. This is how you rewire your brain, move away of old, ingrained little-kid fear of the world and others. Learn it now, learn it later, but you need to learn it. With practice it gets easier.

You increase your self-confidence

By taking what feels like risks, by going against your grain, by practicing over-riding your emotional brain and engaging your rational one, you overall build your self-esteem and self-confidence. You find through experiences that the world is less fearful than you think, that you have more control than you believe, that you don’t have to constantly feel powerless or like a victim.

So what do you have to lose? It’s not about reports or anniversaries, but managing stress and anxiety.

Ready to step up?

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