When worry rears its ugly head, address your anxiety directly and paradoxically.
When worry has relentlessly nagged you in the past, I imagine all you wanted was for worry and its symptoms to subside. To go away. To be free of that worry for good.
Perhaps worry pestered you so much that a big lump appeared to develop in your throat moments before your keynote address… or you ended up sweating through your shirt before you took the microphone at your sister’s wedding reception.
“Stop worrying,” you instructed yourself. “Relax. Enough with the sweating already. Just calm down.” And when the symptoms worsened, your pleading became more panicked. “Quit it! Get out of my throat, you stupid lump!”
But with all your attempts to quiet your worries and doubts, up they come again. “You can’t do this. You can’t handle it. You could make a fool of yourself. Don’t let anyone see you struggle. Please not today.” All of these demeaning, pessimistic, perfectionistic messages and all this anxious worrying and fear of humiliation is producing the lump in your throat… or causing the sweat to accumulate on the armpits of your blouse… or generating whatever symptoms you’re experiencing. And when you respond with, “I can’t stand all this anxiety,” you unintentionally produce even more symptoms.
So we have two problems here: (1) your doubts and insecurities, and (2) your need to get rid of symptoms. But we can bundle all these messages of threat and fear into one category: “the stuff Anxiety is saying to me.” By doing that, you then have to address only this one entity, your singular challenger (Anxiety), instead of countering every single message that pops up in your mind.
Now, I’m going to ask you to address Anxiety directly. It need not be out loud (addressing Anxiety aloud in a drugstore or during your uncle’s eulogy could have negative consequences), but talking directly to your challenger
is significant. Give Anxiety a clear set of instructions. Be crystal clear.
Most importantly, don’t ask for your anxious symptoms to cease or subside. In fact, say the opposite of what Anxiety expects to hear. Instead of saying, “Please get rid of these anxious symptoms and these fear-inducing doubts,” perhaps try:
“This knot in my throat is big, but you could do better. Make it bigger.”
“My heart is barely racing. Come on. Give me your best shot.”
“Hey Anxiety, please drench my armpits. Turn these pockets of sweat into pools of perspiration. That would make me so happy.”
If this seems completely absurd… good. We’re getting somewhere.
. . .
Have you ever had a hard time falling asleep? You lie down, close your eyes, and attempt to put your mind at ease. After a few minutes, you tell yourself, “Look, it’s nighttime. I’m in bed. I’m under the covers. It’s time to go to sleep.” Several more minutes pass. “Hey, I have to get to sleep! I can’t just lie here for hours. I can’t stand this!”
If, in that very same situation, you decide to lie in bed with the goal of not letting your eyes close, of making it your mission to keep your eyes open, you’ll have a better chance of falling asleep. Why? Because you are responding paradoxically. Your urge to “Fall asleep now!” is sending your amygdala a message that something is wrong; hence, it responds by juicing you up a little, and you become more alert. But when you commit to trying to keep your eyes open, you give up the struggle, your amygdala quiets down, and you’re far more likely to drift off to sleep.
All I’m suggesting is that we employ this same paradoxical tactic with Anxiety: to tell it what it doesn’t expect to hear. Ask for more worries, more symptoms, more sweat, more discomfort… and we want it now. (The “now” part really throws Anxiety off guard.) “Anxiety, my palms aren’t nearly sweaty enough. Give me more sweat, please. Right now!”
Again, I’m aware that this proposal sounds utterly ridiculous. Some may decide that their worries are too “serious” for this absurd approach. They may even misinterpret this strategy as dismissive.
But, just for a moment, imagine what you would sound like if you begged for your symptoms to swell. “Anxiety, I urge you to make me more embarrassed. I want you to make my cheeks bright lobster red. I’m at a 7 right now; make it a 10, please! No—make it an 11!” We’re purposefully embracing this theater of the absurd to shift your attitude and to help you stop resisting. Remember: Anxiety feeds off your resistance. The more you practice this extreme stance of asking for more, the less likely you are to say, “Oh no, this is bad. I can’t handle this.”
When you deliver a clear, paradoxical instruction, you may discover that Anxiety can’t live up to the challenge you’ve posed. Moreover, you’ll learn that in some instances… (spoiler alert)… the threatening symptoms actually begin to fade. When “Bring it on!” is your go-to attitude in the face of noisy worries and anxious symptoms, then you’ll be the craftiest, most cunning challenger Anxiety has ever met.
Further reading: Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016.