Anxiety keeps people from speaking up at work, saying "hi" to a potential new friend, asking the boss for a raise, or getting in an elevator.
There are many more examples. In short, anxiety can paralyze people, making them too afraid to go after their goals.
You can break free from the tyranny of anxiety by changing two things--your thoughts and your actions. This is simple but not easy.
You may not be aware that some of your thoughts are "anxiety friendly," or how to change them. It may be scary to break ingrained habits and try new ways of doing things.
There are powerful strategies from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). They can help you change how you think about things you fear, and find the courage to change your habit of avoiding them.
To change your thoughts, you first need to know which thoughts need changing. One strategy is to notice, and write down, all the thoughts that come up when you are feeling anxious about something.
"People won't like what I have to say"
"I will look foolish"
"My mind will go blank"
"I will get stuck in an elevator if it breaks down, and that would be a major catastrophe."
You can then ask yourself if these thoughts are 100% true. Most likely, there are shades of gray to the situation, and it Is not all black or white.
Try replacing each of these thoughts with a more realistic thought that is believable to you, even if the new thought is not 100% positive. These replacement thoughts can lower your anxiety, and act as a bridge toward more positive experiences and hopeful expectations.
Some possible replacement thoughts are:
"Some people won't like it but maybe some will; I can't expect to please all people all of the time"
"Some will think I look foolish, some won't; besides, looking foolish does not make me a fool"
"Sure, my mind could go blank; I could rehearse a Plan B, just in case"
"People have gotten stuck in elevators and lived to tell of it; I hope it never happens to me, but if it does, I would get through it somehow."
To overcome anxiety and build confidence, it is essential that you do the very thing that you are afraid to do (assuming it is not something that is truly dangerous).
Confidence comes from practice, over and over again. Only then will the anxiety level go down. Waiting to feel confident does not help. You must act, even though you feel anxious.
CBT refers to this strategy as exposure. You can expose yourself to the feared, avoided situation by either wading in gradually, or jumping right in. Both ways work, for different people and in different situations.
Saying "hi" to a potential new friend, and then excusing yourself after a very short conversation, is an example of wading in. You could say "hi" again another time, and talk a little more, gradually building toward getting to know the person better.
Going to a party and forcing yourself to talk to everyone is an example of jumping right in. That could be overwhelming. It could trigger such anxiety that you, understandably, might be afraid to go out again. Then again, for another person in another situation, it could be fun and exciting, and the anxiety would wear itself out after a while.
A wading in approach to a party would be to go to the party, planning to leave after twenty minutes. During those twenty minutes, you could say "hi" to the host and two other people. Then you could excuse yourself in a friendly way, saying, "I am really busy, but I wanted to at least stop by." This way, you could gradually get used to similar situations.
Walking up to your boss and asking for a raise is another way of jumping in, and it may not be very effective. It would certainly be anxiety provoking to even think about doing.
Starting a friendly conversation with your boss could be an example of wading in. That could lead to ongoing "mini" conversations with your boss, helping to build up a rapport between you. This could gradually lead up to inquiries about his expectations of you, how he thinks you are doing, and how to merit a raise.
I hope this article about CBT strategies for reducing anxiety is helpful to you. This article is not intended to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. It is intended as an introduction to CBT, and to present a few examples of how CBT strategies can help lower anxiety.
You can learn more about CBT through self help books, such as The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns, M.D., or Mind Over Mood by Christine Padesky, PhD and Dennis Greenberger, PhD.
Kate Boswell MFT is a Los Angeles based therapist in Marina del Rey, CA. She helps anxious young men and women become more confident and brave in going after their goals. Nearby communities served are Playa del Rey, Playa Vista, Del Rey, Mar Vista, Venice, Culver City, and Westchester. Kate can be reached at (310) 658-3158.