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Three Core Anxieties and How to Calm Them

Realistic hope for liberation from anxiety

What can you do when your anxieties and fears greatly trouble you? You can hope for a miracle. You can hope to grow out of them. You can hope that by avoiding them they will go away. Will you pin the quality of your life on these hopes?

What might the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), Albert Ellis, say? Ellis might tell you that he once had numerous anxieties and fears, such as fearing attractive young women and speaking before groups. He overcame his anxieties and fears by working hard using cognitive techniques from philosophy and behavioral methods from psychology. You can do the same.

Let’s explore Ellis’ three forms of anxiety: ego anxiety, discomfort anxiety, and anxiety over anxiety. The three forms normally blend and underpin specific anxieties, such as agoraphobia (fear of panicking in certain places), and social anxieties, such as public speaking anxiety. Diminishing one core anxiety normally results in lowering the intensity of the others.

Let’s say that you are anxious about giving a speech—this can be any performance situation, such as taking a test, entering a dance contest, sketching a scene, or running a race. How might you address this anxiety when it is accompanied by the three forms of anxiety?

Ego anxiety is mainly about you. The threat is to your image or self-worth. Knowing how you rate yourself is a key to understanding ego anxiety. For example, do you impose unrealistic requirements on yourself? If you believe that you must give a speech that rivals the best ever, and you absolutely need others to acknowledge you in positive ways, you have put yourself in emotional peril. (If you normally think using anxiety-arousing requirement terms, such as must and need, is it possible for you to cut yourself some slack in this area?) You can try another way.

1. Consider whether you make yourself anxious about not doing well enough. By catastrophizing (evaluating a future situation by blowing possible negative consequences out of proportion) you set yourself on a path of worry and rumination about dire possibilities. You may simultaneously awfulize and amplify your tension (awfulizing = making a situation worse than it is—sometimes worse than bad—by using dramatic language, such as terrible or unbearable). Rather than ruminate about possible failures, work to do better. Can you act as if you could prepare for the talk without predicting the worst and awfulizing about consequences that have not happened? Your awareness of this alternative is a start in the direction of ridding yourself of ego anxiety.

2. Examine how you judge your worth. Do you make your worth depend on meeting lofty standards? Do you spy on yourself and rate and judge how well you are preparing? Recognize this contingency worth issue and you are on your way to separating your global worth from your speech performances. If you are more than just an anticipated poor performance, you may feel like a more flexible you.

3. Take an inventory of your “self”. Are you more than a public speaking performance? If you are not sure, compile a list of all your positive attributes, learnings, and experiences. You may quickly see that there is a big difference between judging your worth and judging your variable performances. You may come to see that you are neither a success nor a failure as a speaker nor a success or a failure as a person. For example, if you were to give 100 talks you’d do better with some presentations than others. You are likely to improve more by rating your performances than by rating yourself.

Discomfort anxiety is an exaggerated threat to your future emotional stability. If you expect to feel afraid, and believe that you can’t bear feeling tense while giving your talk, you are probably catastrophizing. You see yourself in a vulnerable, perhaps terrifying, position. You may distress yourself by describing yourself as emotionally falling to pieces (awfulizing). To avoid falling to pieces (whatever that means), you may avoid preparing for your presentation until you feel comfortable. That procrastination plan rarely turns out well. You can try another way.

1. Explore the advantages of avoiding discomfort versus living through discomfort. The advantage of avoiding discomfort is quick relief. That’s a specious reward. Here’s the downside of a specious reward: (1) You risk reinforcing tension avoidance. (2)You set yourself up to repeat this cycle. Consider an alternative. If you allow yourself to feel discomfort, you may discover that you don’t need to fear the feeling. That’s an advantage. You’ll have one less anxiety. As a bonus you may simultaneously decrease secondary procrastination. This procrastination follows an emotional problem, such as anxiety. For example, you secondarily procrastinate when you put off dealing with your anxiety or directly facing your inhibiting fears. By productively facing your anxieties and fears you avoid this pitfall.

2. Teach yourself to describe how you feel without dramatizing the meaning of the emotion. For example, “I don’t like feeling anxious” has a different meaning than “I can’t stand feeling anxious.” By reframing the issue with realistic toned-down language, you can avoid viewing yourself as inadequate and projecting this conclusion into the future.

3. Put yourself into challenging situations. Make learning to tolerate tension part of engaging in useful but uncomfortable situations. By behaviorally showing yourself that you can stand tension, you are less likely to rocket normal tensions into negative emotions that you may later describe as terrible.

Anxiety over anxiety can be a major tension amplifier—perhaps more intense than your initial anxiety. You feel anxious about giving a speech. This anxiety is distracting. You feel anxious over feeling anxious and amplify your anxiety into something worse than the anxiety that you first experienced. You can try another way.

1. Practice mental rehearsal. Imagine yourself presenting before an audience, doing well enough, and later thinking how you can improve the next time that you give a talk.

2. Practice your talk with a few friends. Get feedback about how you might improve. Incorporate the feedback that works best for you and repeat the performance for practice.

3. Practice acceptance. If you were to ask Albert Ellis for one more tip, the odds are he would say to accept yourself in spite of your human foibles and flaws. Accept others and life. Acceptance is, then, taking life, as it is, including what you definitely don’t like, while at the same time refusing to upset yourself about what you can’t change. By working to develop an acceptant attitude, you are working at defusing the three core anxieties that Ellis describes.

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

This blog is part of a series to celebrate the 100th and 101st year anniversaries of Dr. Albert Ellis’ birth. Ellis is the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy and the grandfather of cognitive-behavior therapy.

Albert Ellis Revisited (Carlson & Knaus 2013) is the Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series centennial book. The publisher, Routledge, offers a 20% discount on the book. Control click on this link: Albert Ellis Revisited. Type the code Ellis for the discount. The book qualifies for free shipping and handling. Bill Knaus’ royalties from this book go directly to the Denan Project charity. When you buy the book, you are helping yourself by learning ways to live life fully, and you are helping bring irrigation, crops, and health care to destitute areas of the world.

For more information on rational emotive behavior therapy, click on Albert Ellis’ official website: Albert Ellis Network:

For other articles in this centennial (and beyond) Albert Ellis tribute blog series, cut and paste any of the below http links to your server's http request header:

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