Nearly 40 million Americans are affected by an anxiety disorder. Many more of us are grappling with situational anxiety that can arise from something as seemingly innocuous as being stuck in traffic or having to give a presentation at work. Or we might feel a nearly constant uneasiness about an issue that feels too big to get a grip on, like paying our bills, dealing with a difficult relationship or the fragile state of the world.
One especially debilitating symptom of anxiety is catastrophizing (or spiraling out of control), which is a cognitive distortion that leads people to immediately believe the worst possible outcome will play out, even though there is little evidence to make or support that conclusion.
“Your mind is going to the worst-case scenario, and in the process you’re getting really, really anxious,” psychotherapist Rene Gonzalez recently told us, Raj Punjabi and Noah Michelson, the co-hosts of HuffPost’s “Am I Doing It Wrong?” podcast. When this happens, it prevents us from seeing the scenario accurately, which can keep us spiraling in our anxiety — and from finding a solution or path forward. But there are effective ways to calm ourselves down and get a grip on the reality of the situation.
“One of the first things we can do is labeling when we’re doing this,” Gonzalez said. “What I tend to do with clients when they’re in session with me is ask them, ‘What is the worst-case scenario in your mind?’ I find sometimes just talking about it can desensitize people, but usually I’ll then ask, ‘What is actually the most likely thing to happen here? Is that worst-case scenario actually the thing that’s going to happen?’ Most of the time it’s not.”
Gonzalez also instructs his clients to imagine that the thing they’re afraid of happening actually does happen. “They might go into specifics about what that looks like, and then I would ask, ‘A week after this, how do you think you’re going to feel?’ and they’ll maybe say, ‘I’ll still feel pretty nervous.’ And then I’ll ask, ‘What about in a month? Or three months? Or six months? Or even a year?’ The vast majority of the time we get to a year and they say, ‘I won’t even be thinking about it at that point.’ I think it helps people understand this is something they’re going to pass through and that they’re going to survive, and that can deescalate people.”
This is just one of the many approaches to mitigating anxiety that we discussed with Gonzalez. We also chatted about how the “big list of pleasurable activities” can be a potent distress-fighting tool, the first step to finding a therapist and much more:
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