Fresh Ideas from Old Books on Conquering Anxiety

Use old but great ideas to overcome anxiety

Posted Aug 17, 2010

You may be surprised to find ideas from old books that you can use to overcome your anxieties and fears.  I'll share some from three old books on anxiety. (I updated the ideas a bit without changing the author's thoughts.)

A Gem for the Taking

Swiss psychiatrist, Paul Dubois (1909), understood the relationship between exaggeration and anxiety. Dubois thought that anxiety-evoking events happen every day. It's easy to lose perspective.  Here is one of his exercises to keep a balanced perspective:

1. Create two columns and label the left column "troubles" and the right column "favorable"

2. Each evening list what troubled you in the left column. In the right column, list favorable happenings. Make at least one favorable entry for every annoyance or trouble. Add as many more favorable happenings as you can. You may find that that there are more positives in your life than vagrant, negative, events.

If you conscientiously perform this psychological homework assignment for 30 days, Dubois thought you'd improve your chances to balance out your life and find a favorable life direction. 

The reference is. Dubois, P. (1909). The Psychic Treatment of Mental Disorders. NY: Funk & Wagnalls.

An Early Cognitive, Emotive, Behavior Approach

Psychiatrist Tom Williams (1923) thought conscious ideas trigger anxious feelings and you can quickly identify this thinking.

Williams suggests three corrective steps against anxiety thinking: (1) get a scientific education about anxiety; (2) pause to make logical judgments about anxiety thinking; (3) discredit anxiety thinking by removing the exaggerations.

He had three premises for positive change: (1) a persistent destructive anxiety is unnecessary and can be changed; (2) a willingness to act with self-discipline counterbalances anxiety; (3) an acceptance that it takes time and effort to break an anxiety habit moves you farther on the path to change than expecting immediate relief.

Here are five cognitive, emotive, and behavioral steps for quelling parasitic anxieties:

1. The situation as a whole rarely triggers anxiety. You can usually isolate parts linked to your anxious tension. If you experience performance anxiety, is it falling short of a standard? Do you fear the feeling? Attend to the feared part.

2. Remind yourself that how you view influences how you feel about the event.

3. Obtain clarity of vision through honesty of purpose. What do you want to accomplish by facing your fear? Prioritize fulfilling responsibilities over avoiding anxious tension.

4. Parroting positive slogans will get you nowhere. Work at gradually penetrating your thoughts with realistic self-affirmations. For example, imagine yourself exhibiting your better capabilities, then play out what you think.

5. Expose yourself to aspect(s) of the feared situation that most troubles you. Gradually make adjustments in how you engage the situation. Give yourself time to settle into a new way of thinking and experiencing.

The references are Williams, T. A. (1923). Dreads and Besetting Fears. Boston: Little Brown & Co. and Williams, T. A. (1914). A contrast in psychoanalysis: Three cases. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology 9(2-3): 73-86.

End Anxieties and Fears

We know psychologist John Dollard for his work with Neil Miller on cognitive social learning. By observing how people imitate what others do, and by studying their thought processes, Dollard and Miller believed they could better understand how people learn and change. 

Let's see what John Dollard (1942) had to say about how to conquer parasitic anxieties.

Here's Dollard's core idea for quelling needless anxiety: "When afraid, stop and think. Examine the feared situation. See if there is any real danger in it. If not, try just that act to which the fear is attached" (Ibid p. 22). He suggests a stop, look, and listen technique:

1. When you find yourself in an anxious pickle, an essential step is to stop and think about your thinking (the metacognitive way). If you don't figure out what is in your head, you'll run from what you feel in your gut. When in doubt, write out the thoughts. What are you saying to yourself when you have a parasitic form of anxiety? Do you worry about what is wrong with you? Do you hear an inner voice saying, what's the use, why bother trying? Dollard admits that thinking about thinking doesn't come naturally. However, you can develop a nose for sniffing out problem thinking.

2. When you look you examine the meaning of your self-statements. What is going on? What is the problem? Is there a thinking fiction? Through this self-revelation, you may find you have a correctable problem to solve.

3. Dollard struggles with his definition of "listening" to make the problem-solving mnemonic work. Here is the gist. When you listen, you prepare yourself to separate vexing from useful thoughts and combat anxiety thinking. For example, if you think you are powerless to overcome your anxieties and fears, what are the exception(s)? By asking the question, you've shown yourself you are not powerless. Dollard is explicit about what happens next: changes in thinking must include new actions if you are to make the new thoughts useful.

The reference is Dollard, J. (1942). Victory over Fear. NY: Renyal & Hitchcock.

Cobwebs may surround these three old books. Nevertheless, the ideas stay vital and timeless.

For more guidance on how successfully to combat anxiety, click on:  The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety (Second Edition)

                                                          (C) Dr. Bill Knaus

                                                          All rights reserved