Author: Dr. Melanie Badali, R.Psych.
A new year is upon us once again and people are talking about New Year’s resolutions. Some people get excited about the beauty of a new beginning, while others can’t be bothered because they’ve been burned in the past. Either way, a new year is a good time for a fresh perspective.
The definition of a resolution is, “A firm decision to do or not to do something.” This year, I’ve decided to focus on opportunities and face my fears.
It seems obvious that given the choice between focusing on the opportunities versus focusing on the threats in life, most people will choose to focus on the opportunities. Unfortunately, it is harder to do than it may sound. When we feel anxious, our thoughts may automatically shift to focus on potential threats. When we pay attention to potential threats, we may feel more anxious. Do you see how we can get stuck in a spiral of anxiety?
When our anxious thoughts and feelings are feeding each other, what can we do to manage the spiral of anxiety?
The trick is in the do.
When our anxious thoughts and emotions dictate our actions, managing our anxiety can be become harder. As uncomfortable as it may seem, sometimes we have to act the opposite of how we feel. Paradoxically, the things we may do to decrease our anxiety in the short term can fuel our anxiety, making it worse for us in the long run. By facing our fears and doing what scares us, we can learn that the fear is unfounded or that we are able to cope with the feared outcome.
The key is to figure out if we’re doing or avoiding something out of preference (we don’t actually like it), or if we’re avoiding it because we feel anxious.
Ask yourself the following question:
If I knew for sure (insert fear here) _________________________, was not going to happen, what would I do?
- If I knew I was not going to be rejected, would I go on a date?
- If I knew I was going to get an offer, would I apply for the job?
- If I knew I couldn’t fail/be rejected/get sick/look foolish, what would I do?
Are you missing out on any opportunities?
To help you identify the situations that you typically avoid, here’s an exercise from the Anxiety Canada website. Try to come up with as many answers as possible to the following questions:
If you woke up tomorrow morning and all your anxiety had magically disappeared,
- What would you do?
- How would you act?
- How would someone close to you know you weren’t anxious?
Finish the following sentences:
- My anxiety stops me from__________________________________
- When I am not anxious, I will be able to_______________________
Anxiety can feel very uncomfortable, so it’s not unusual to want that feeling to stop. Remember that anxiety is normal, it isn’t dangerous, it can actually be helpful, and it won’t last forever. Knowing this can help you act bravely.
Here are 5 facts about anxiety:
1. Anxiety is normal. Everyone experiences anxiety at times. For example, it is normal to feel anxious when on a rollercoaster, or before a job interview.
2. Anxiety is adaptive. It is a system in our body that helps us to deal with real danger (for example, anxiety allows us to jump out of the way of a speeding car) or to perform at our best (for example, it motivates us to prepare for a big presentation). When you experience anxiety, your body’s “fight-flight-freeze” response (also called the “adrenaline response”) is triggered. This response prepares your body to defend itself.
3. Anxiety is not dangerous. Although anxiety may feel uncomfortable, it is not dangerous or harmful to you. Remember, all the sensations you feel when you are anxious are there to protect you from danger, not hurt you.
4. Anxiety does not last forever. When you are anxious, you may feel like the anxiety is going to last forever. But anxiety is temporary and will eventually decrease.
5. Anxiety is mostly anonymous. Most people (except those close to you) cannot tell when you are anxious.
“Anxiety is a problem when your body reacts as if there is danger when there is no real danger. It’s like having an overly sensitive smoke alarm system in your body!”
So how can you focus on opportunities in 2018 and face your fears? If there is something that makes you feel anxious or afraid – do it anyway. Please don’t jump off a cliff or wrestle a grizzly bear – but go on that date, apply for the job, say no, or have someone over when your house is messy.
Just do it!
Think of the popular Nike “Just do it” slogan. It’s one of the few slogans from my childhood that’s still popular today, but that’s not the reason I like it — I like it because there is some wisdom to it. Did you know that Nike is also the name of the Greek goddess of victory? People who are victorious may suffer some stings and losses along the way, but they manage to focus on moving towards what they want, rather than retreating from what they don’t want.
Even the best athletes lose sometimes, but they don’t stop playing the game. Don’t let the threat of (insert fear here) __________________, keep you from the game of life. If your fear is more anxiety, same goes. Ironically, doing something you are afraid of (exposure) and experiencing a temporary increase in anxiety, often results in a more long-term and lasting decrease in anxiety. On the other hand, avoiding something you are afraid of can lower anxiety in the short term and increase anxiety long term.
So, let yourself feel anxious, face your fears – you will build resiliency as you do so. This year, join me in focusing on opportunities and facing fears. This resolution can get you closer to the life you really want (and deserve).
Anxiety may be bossy, but you are the boss.
There is no option to be 100% safe or certain (wouldn’t our brains love that?) about everything. Our brains are on the lookout for potential threats; it’s our brain’s way of guarding us from danger. But if you find that your brain is an overachiever and has been working overtime trying to keep you safe, join me in finding, focusing on, and advancing toward the opportunities this new year. If your anxiety has become so severe that it’s causing you a lot of distress and interfering with day- to- day activities (when anxiety has become an anxiety disorder), there are concrete steps that you can take to reduce your anxiety and the impact it’s having on your life. Need some tips on how to do this? Check out anxietycanada.com for tips on facing your fears, realistic thinking, and tolerating uncertainty, and more!
The time to be the boss of your anxiety is now.
Dr. Melanie Badali, R.Psych.
Dr. Melanie Badali is a Registered Psychologist and is CACBT-ACTCC certified in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. She is on the Board of Directors at Anxiety Canada and practices at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic.