Decreasing Anxiety by Putting Away Your Crystal Ball

Like with all of the topics I discuss, there are so many ways to think about anxiety that I couldn't possibly cover them all in one blog.  Today I've decided to focus on the predictive nature of anxiety, since it comes up a lot in my practice.  Predictive anxiety comes from imagining a future scenario that we want to avoid.  For example, I have some social anxiety.  When I am around people I don't know well, I feel anxious and uncomfortable.  This anxiety can manifest itself in dreading social events. When I break my thoughts down, I'm predicting feeling awkward and uncomfortable, not knowing what to say. I'm also imagining that people will not like me, and no one likes rejection. So, if I'm predicting rejection from the start, why wouldn't I feel anxious, which leads to feeling awkward, which then reinforces the negative spiral. 

Given that anxiety creates the hell that we're trying to avoid, why do we have it?  In this example, my anxiety is a protective strategy I learned long ago.  By predicting the future based on events from the past, I'm trying to protect myself from getting hurt.  Unfortunately, it's a strategy that's outlived it's usefulness.  Since most of us don't own crystal balls, and the magic eight ball is only accurate about 50% of the time, we should probably stay out of the predicting business.  Most predicting is based on past trauma and, as I've mentioned, recreates the hell we're trying to avoid.  So how can we begin to have different conversations with ourselves?

A few years ago, mainstream psychology started to embrace the Buddhist notion of mindfulness and the importance of meditation. The idea is that living in the present moment keeps life manageable.  We have no control over the future or the past, all we have is the now.  What are you thinking, feeling, experiencing right now? What thoughts are running through your head? What sensations do you notice in your body? What are you picking up from your environment? Noticing these experiences, without attaching judgement or meaning is what this practice is about.  

Another approach involves becoming "friends" with your anxiety, being curious and trying to understand it better. As I mentioned before, your anxiety may be trying to protect you from getting hurt again.  It's like flashing lights warning of the danger ahead.  Instead of avoiding the possible danger, treading lightly might be more useful.  Extend a little self-compassion and understanding your way:  "Of course I feel anxious, this experience reminds me of times I felt rejected."  At appropriate times, maybe in journal or with a therapist, allow yourself to explore your painful memories and grieve the old wounds, so you can heal.  If you heal the past, you'll be less triggered in the present.