The human brain is amazingly adept at convincing us that something that is bad for us is actually good. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, our brains will cherry pick the few things that make us feel better and allow us to continue with what we want to think or do.
I am not just talking about extreme examples like anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers. Anti-vaxxers would rather see their children die than admit they are wrong. It happens with more mundane things as well, like overeating or smoking. Smokers would rather increase their cancer and emphysema risks exponentially than give up their cancer sticks.
Everyone who does not stop doing something harmful has had their brain convince them that the pain of stopping is worse than the pain of continuing.
Future anxiety does this masterfully. I’m not talking about past anxiety. That being the anxiety where you remember embarrassing things you did in the third grade and still beat yourself up about them. That’s a different social issue. When I say future anxiety, I mean the anxiety some of us have where our brain will invent scenarios about how everything is going to be a disaster or every little problem will spiral out of control and destroy our lives.
Future anxiety is the one where you think every cut is going to get infected or you worry about having left the stove on, even when you didn’t even cook that day, or you think you will go to meet your friends at the movies and end up falling down with your snacks and being on the floor wearing popcorn and soda with 100 people pointing and laughing.
It does not matter that the odds of any of those things happening are slim to none. When you give in to your anxiety and give too much attention to a tiny injury or go back upstairs and check the stove you had not even turned on that day or stay home instead of going out with your friends, you brain claims victory.
Your anxiety will tell you that it succeeded in protecting you. That little paper cut on your finger didn’t turn into gangrene and you didn’t lose your hand because you put Neosporin on it three times a day for a week, long after it was healed. Your house didn’t burn down because you went back upstairs and checked needlessly. You didn’t get humiliated at the movie theater because you stayed home.
Anxiety is the dog who loses its shit when the mailman comes along. In the dog’s mind, the mailman is a killer. He’s coming to your door. He’s bringing that big bag of mail to shove down your throats and suffocate you. He is seconds from breaking in and murdering your whole family. Then he hears the dog. Damn. He doesn’t want to get bit so he leaves your door and goes to see if the neighbors are home. Crisis averted. The dog is so proud of itself. It has no idea why you keep yelling at it to quit barking. That dog saved your life and that is how you repay it?
Anxiety is the same way. It protected you. It saved your life. You owe it some gratitude. You need to appreciate it more. You need to listen to it more often. That is the insidious lie anxiety will tell you.
When it is something external, like the mailman, it is easy to look at the silly dog and know there is no threat there. Even if the size of some of your bills may make you feel like choking.
When it is an internal video playing in your head, it is harder to say your anxiety is silly and there is no threat. Anxiety is a master at making the threat sound plausible and at making you do things that increase that feeling of plausibility. Sure, you know the papercut isn’t going to get infected, but those midnight google image searches for gangrene fingers did not help your peace of mind.
How do we combat this when anxiety has such a strong hold on our emotions?
Learn to Identify the Bullshit
You cannot fight your anxiety if you don’t recognize which of your thoughts it creates. Some warning thoughts are actual safety issues and should not be ignored. Learn the difference between your brain legitimately thinking that you need to drive more cautiously today because it is pouring rain and your anxiety telling you to stay home because it is sprinkling and you will die in a 10 car pile-up.
Unfortunately, the anxious thoughts are usually not that obvious. Everyone’s anxiety is different so you need to learn to recognize your own.
I give my thoughts a plausibility rating. I’m a data wonk. I love numbers, statistics, any kind of facts and data I can get to analyze a problem. I need it quantified. I use that to my advantage by trying to determine the probability of what I fear actually happening. Set whatever threshold is comfortable for you. But don’t set it too low or you are playing into anxiety’s hand. Technically it’s an infinite universe so anything is possible, but for most bad scenarios, the odds are very small. Because of the way my mind works, that fact reassures me and I can use it for the next step.
Talking Back to Your Anxiety
Your anxiety if often running a soundtrack in your brain without feedback. A possible key to breaking the hold anxiety has over you is to give it negative feedback. Talk back to your anxiety. Do it silently in your head or out loud if you are comfortable with that. I do my back talk silently. That has the added advantage that I can do it anywhere that anxiety rears its nasty head.
Battle your anxiety with facts. That cough is a summer cold, it is not the start of lung cancer. The odds that it is are infinitesimal.
Do not allow your anxiety to catastrophize everything. When it tries, shut it down. That will not be easy. At first, you will just be able to contradict it. But as you get better at it, you may learn to recognize the thought as it is beginning and cut it off.
Do not allow your anxiety to claim it protected you. Do not let it claim it kept you from losing your hand because it made you worry excessively about the paper cut. Again, statistics can be your friend here. How rare is gangrene? How rare is amputation? How many cases of paper cuts that end up requiring amputation are reported each year? How often did you have papercuts in the past that healed just fine? You’ve never lost a hand.
If your anxiety tries to bully you to justify its existence in your life, be confrontational with it. It didn’t save your hand. It didn’t save your house. It didn’t save your life. It is nothing but a bunch of random thoughts swirling around in your head. Tell it that. Don’t let it claim power over you without pushback.
It is not always easy to fight the power grab that anxiety makes in your brain. Learning to cut those thoughts off and talk back to them can be an important step in getting your anxiety under control.