Anxiety is characterized by a sense of dread in anticipation of a negative outcome. It consists of a cognitive and physical component. Thought patterns are the fuel that triggers a host of physical symptoms such as muscle tension, fatigue, and sleep difficulties.When anxiety spikes, it can be difficult to untangle from the web of worry thoughts. Popularized by Christine A. Padesky, the following anxiety equation can help you work through such thoughts:Anxiety = Danger / Ability to Cope
According to this equation, anxiety spikes when you overestimate a threat and underestimate your ability to deal with it. In other words, you feel powerless when confronted with a potential danger.
You can reduce anxiety by feeling safer in a particular setting. Reflecting on the odds of a potentially negative outcome can help you achieve this.
As an example, I have worked with people who did not fly on a plane due to a fear that the plane would crash.
A helpful exercise is to understand the odds that one’s fear will become a reality. Large commercial airplanes had one fatal crash for every 3.7 million flights in 2020. For comparison’s sake, you are more likely to be struck by lightning, which is estimated at 1 in around 500,000.
Putting your fear in perspective is an essential step to reduce anxiety. We often treat our fears as imminent and inevitable even if they have a low risk of occurrence. However, many of our fears are hypothetical scenarios that never come to fruition. Understanding the odds can help you feel safer in a particular setting.
The second lever of the anxiety equation considers how capable you are to deal with a stressor.
As an example, imagine you are enjoying a leisurely walk in the woods and a bear suddenly ambushes you. Not only is your life in grave danger, but you were not prepared to deal with a predator who is stronger and faster than you. Your predictable surge in anxiety stems from feeling powerless in this scenario.
Life is littered with daily challenges that provoke feelings of powerlessness such as working for an abusive boss, dealing with a health scare, or a sudden job loss. These scenarios pose a serious threat to one’s sense of safety and well-being.
There are two strategies to reduce feelings of powerlessness. The first is to focus on taking the necessary action to improve your odds of overcoming the hardship. For example, you may deal with the abusive boss by reporting them to their superior or HR. For the health scare, you would closely follow the recommendations of your healthcare providers and adopt a healthier lifestyle. Finally, you may respond to a job loss by cutting back on your expenses, updating your resume, and even working with a recruiter.
Taking action in the face of adversity is challenging. It is easier to avoid a problem and hope it will miraculously disappear rather than take action to address it. Anxiety wants you to shut down and put your head in the sand.The problem with avoidance behavior is that it is more likely to exacerbate an already difficult situation rather than solve it. For example, not taking action following a job loss is likely to compound your financial hardship. Likewise, not standing up to an abuser teaches them that there are no consequences for their unacceptable behavior.
By not taking any action, you are relinquishing all control, which ultimately renders you powerless. Hence, your best bet is to take action in the face of adversity. When you take action within your sphere of control, you can make a difficult situation more manageable.Your sphere of control is not limited to taking action in response to a stressor. It is equally important to proactively develop the necessary skills to cope with anxiety when the need arises.As an example, a rigorous review of different studies has shown that meditation can improve anxiety. Practicing meditation on a consistent basis is a great way to sharpen this tool and have it readily available for future anxiety-provoking situations.The second way to reduce feelings of powerlessness is to look in your past and remember previous challenges that you have overcome. No one wishes hardship on themselves or loved ones. However, such experiences serve as a guiding light to navigate present and future difficulties. They are evidence of your resilience and ability to overcome.