Addressing Anxiety through Cognitive Therapy
We tend to place judgments and labels on the physiological sensations that we experience. We may label a fast heart rate as “bad” or as “anxiety.” These judgments and labels often make our experiences worse. The more we judge them and the more we try to escape these “bad” experiences, the scarier and more intense they become. For example, if you’ve ever been on a roller coaster ride, then you have experienced the intense physiological arousal that roller coasters produce. Your heart starts racing, you feel dizzy and shaky, and you experience a rush in the pit of your stomach. There’s the intense anticipation as the roller coaster slowly moves upward before a huge drop, which is both thrilling and scary all at once.
Experiencing such physiological symptoms on a roller coaster ride is far less threatening than experiencing them when you don’t expect to, such as while lying in bed and trying to fall asleep. In the latter case, you may feel terrified. Your mind starts labeling the experience as “bad” and attempts to figure out reasons, explanations, and hypotheses for why you are feeling the way you are. Your mind asks, “Why am I feeling dizzy?” “Why is my heart racing?” “Is it because I had too much coffee?” “Is it because I didn’t get enough sleep?” “Why am I anxious?” “Am I having a panic attack?” “Did I forget something important?” The more your mind labels the experience as bad, the more anxious and nervous you become. The more you try to eliminate the experience and fall asleep, the harder it is for you to fall asleep.
Our sensations are not in our control. When we are on a roller coaster, we can’t control our heart rates. When we have an important test, we can’t control the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that it brings up. However, we can make an active choice about how we choose to relate to these experiences. We can choose to resist and fight the experience, or we can choose to willingly go for the ride and observe it with kindness and compassion toward ourselves. We can notice that when we get off the roller coaster, it takes three to five minutes for our bodies to come back to homeostasis and for all of those physiological experiences to diminish—and then we may be ready to go on another ride.
So, how can we take the ride with our physical sensations of anxiety, fear, pain, and panic in the same way we ride a roller coaster? The key is to notice what our minds try to sell us about our experiences and still choose to stay present and aware of those experiences. In other words, we can observe the experience in the moment and notice the labels, explanations, and hypotheses that our minds concoct.
We can ask ourselves, “Where in my body do I feel this feeling right now? What color is this feeling? What shape is this feeling? How heavy is it? How intense is it on a scale of 1 to 10? Is this an experience I have had before? How many times have I had this experience in the past month? Does this experience have to be my enemy, or is it something I can handle right now, in this moment? Am I willing to stay in contact with this feeling 100 percent, exactly as it is at this moment? Have I ever managed to get rid of this experience before? Is it possible for human beings to permanently eliminate this experience? How do I usually respond to this experience? Do I try to push it away and get rid of it? How does that work for me? How can I behave differently with this experience? If this experience is not my friend, does it have to be my enemy? Does it have to be something I refuse to tolerate and have? What would it be like if this experience weren’t my enemy?”
Physiological experiences come and go, just like the weather. No experience is permanent. Sometimes you feel pain, and sometimes the pain can be worse than others—a 6 or even a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10—but your experience is always changing.
Again, when you resist the experience and try to understand it, explain it, and get rid of it, the experience becomes only more intense. The more you resist, the worse it gets.
We don’t try to explain or understand why we need to go to the bathroom. We just accept the sensation as a fact. We don’t ask why or resist it or try to understand it or change it. Other experiences of pain, like having a headache, or feeling dizzy, or having stomach pain, are unavoidable, and they don’t last forever. Are you willing to welcome back all your experiences with open arms, watch how long they last, stay very curious, go along for the ride with compassion and tenderness, and notice the very moment when they change and you feel differently?