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50 Tools for Panic and Anxiety -- page 8
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

Initial cognitive training teaches the basic skills that help change irrational beliefs or inaccurate thinking.

Index to 50 Tools

Listen to 50 Tools


Initial Cognitive Training (cont.)

Suggestion 20: Examine Your Words.

Certain words can convey meaning that create pressure, stress, and anxiety. For instance, the word “should” often conveys a demand. Examining your words does not mean that you never use the word “should,” but it means to understand the meaning that it has for you. If that meaning includes an unnecessary demand, then you might want to change the word as a first step to changing the meaning.

For instance, “I should get up early every day” can become “I like to get up early because I get so much done.” Or, it can become “I manage stress better when I sleep longer.” In other words, don't let a demand have control over your life. Instead, determine if it is meaningful to you.

Other words that may require caution are those that label you negatively. If you put yourself down frequently or apologize to the point of annoying others, you may need to examine whether those words and behavior are necessary in your life.

The words we use to talk to ourselves can influence how we feel. If you tell yourself you shouldn't be anxious, you are more likely to be anxious. Whereas, if you tell yourself that you have some skills you can use to cope with the anxiety, you are more likely to focus in an active, problem-solving manner.

I find that frequently my clients aren't even aware of the words they use until I point it out to them. So you need to listen to yourself carefully. Or, ask someone to let you know when you are using certain types of self-talk. Once you are able to recognize the unhelpful words you use, then you want to develop alternatives that focus you in a more positive way.

Suggestion 21: Re-define Labels

Closely related to examining your words is the idea of re-defining labels. The labels you use to describe yourself, others, or your experiences can greatly affect how you feel. For example, if you say “This anxiety is HORRIBLE!” you are likely to feel worse. Try to examine it realistically. Anxiety can certainly be unpleasant, but is it really horrible?

Try to reserve labels such as “horrible” for more life and death types of events. For instance, my husband once read me a story from the newspaper about some Ethiopians who were crossing the desert in search of food and were eaten by lions. That, in my opinion, qualifies for “horrible.” But most of our experiences in life, fortunately, do not reach the level of “horrible.” Yet, we often use such extreme labels.

Examine the labels you use and try not to exaggerate your experience. Not only does it help you to create a better perspective, it also increases the likelihood that others might empathize. If you describe everything in extreme terms, then others are more likely to dismiss all your statements as exaggerations. Be more realistic when describing what you experience and others might be more likely to understand.

Suggestion 22: Identify the Gray

Related to the above suggestions is to reduce black-and-white thinking. The extremes of thinking are rarely accurate. For instance, “This anxiety will NEVER get better” may seem to be true at the time but is not likely to be true. Not only are the extremes inaccurate, but extreme thinking is often quite discouraging.

Therefore, examine your thinking for the extremes and identify how you can change your thinking so it is more moderate or balanced. Balanced thinking recognizes a problem but it also recognizes solutions. Balanced thinking encourages you to focus on what you can change instead of dwelling on the extremes that you cannot change.

As with all the thinking styles, listen to your self-talk so that you can identify when you may be engaging in black-and-white thinking. In particular, listen for words such as “never” or “always.” These are indicators of extreme thinking. When you hear these words, ask yourself “Is that true?” This helps to challenge and change the thinking.

Suggestion 23: Evaluate Based on Effort, Not Outcome

Many of my clients with anxiety judge their success based upon the outcome of their efforts, not upon the effort itself. This way of thinking can be problematic in general, but is particularly troublesome when a person is trying to make changes. The reason for this is that progress isn't usually orderly, efficient, and quick.

Change is difficult. So even when we recognize the change we need to make, it doesn't mean we just do it and we are done. We have to keep trying again and again for a change to become our automatic behavior. Change often involves “two steps forwards, one step back.” But it can also sometimes seem like “one step forward, two steps back.” Therefore, if we only evaluate based on outcome, sometimes it can be quite discouraging. And discouragement can lead to quitting.

It is best to recognize your effort rather than the outcome. Keep in mind that as long as you continue trying you are likely to be successful. Making the effort is all that matters. The effort IS the success. Reward yourself based on your effort.

In addition, when making efforts to reach a goal, many people focus on how far they still need to go rather than on how far they have come. They are evaluating success in a black-and-white way. They believe that the only success of any importance is achieving their ultimate goal. Again, such a focus can be discouraging.

Instead, always keep in mind what you have already accomplished and don't belittle those accomplishments. Recognize all the smaller successes you have on your way to achieving your goal. Each of the steps you take is important, and in fact, more important than your final goal because without each step you will never achieve your desired outcome.

Suggestion 24: Put Worry Away

First, let's define worry. Worry is dwelling on problems unnecessarily. Often, worry is focused in an overly negative and catastrophic manner. Worry is different than examining or evaluating problems. If you are engaged in problem-solving, you are not worrying. You are doing. Learning to manage worry is important for the management of anxiety for several reasons:

1) Worry creates unnecessary anxiety. When people worry they are often focused on the “what ifs” which are the unknown possibilities. However, if we are realistic, there are also unknown positive possibilities. But when people worry, they are focused on the negative possibilities. And the process of worrying tends to exaggerate the probability of those possibilities. The result is increased anxiety about something that possibly won't even occur. Therefore, it is unnecessary.

2) Worry focuses on the uncontrollable. When a person focuses on uncontrollable situations, they can only make themselves feel worse. There is no positive outcome because there is nothing that can be done. As a result, anxiety will likely increase. Yet, most situations have controllable aspects. So it is important to look at what is controllable in the situation rather than what is not controllable.

3) Worry interferes with progress. Worry is about inaction. It is about focusing on what could happen rather than on what could be done. The result is a tendency to ignore or deny the possibilities of problem-solving. Therefore, nothing changes when a person engages in worrying.

Managing worry means learning how to put your worries away and focus on what you can do about a problem. It also means recognizing when you can't do anythings and letting go of the worry. Various methods can aid in this process. The mindfulness methods can be helpful with worry. Also, read The Worry Box Technique for information on how to use imaginal techniques to manage worry. Excel At Life also provides an audio, The Worry Box, and an app Worry Box—Anxiety Self-Help to aid in this process. READ MORE: page 9

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Dr. Monica Frank

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