Shifting Perspectives and Rethinking Anxiety

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rethinking anxietyAnxiety is a widespread and yet very debilitating phenomenon. There are two key ways of re-framing perspective (that is, a different way to approach your worry thoughts) so that they don’t become overwhelming. These two ideologies have guided me through many anxious periods, and they help keep distress at bay, especially when those thoughts want to creep in during the night when I’d most like to be sleeping!

I’ve always tended to be a worrier, which I openly acknowledge. On the one hand, my worries and fears make me extra detail-oriented, and I double-check myself constantly so that I rarely slip up when it counts. But again, those worrying thoughts can sometimes become all-consuming. If I don’t check that cycle of tumbling fears and distress, I can get caught up in a tidal wave of full-blown anxiety.

Treatment of anxiety can run the gamut from talk therapy to medication. The thing that has been the most effective for me is the re-framing of thoughts to challenge the negativity or fears that drive a particular line of thinking in the first place. This is the basis of a type of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT.

My use of this technique has, time and again, come back to two very particular ways of thinking about problems. One is taken from a straightforward concept from Benjamin Hoff’s book, The Tao of Pooh. This book is about the Buddhist principles that make up Taoism as taught through Winnie the Pooh, but for me, it can be distilled into one important illustrative example. At one point in the book, it is explained that water in a flowing stream may encounter rocks, but it does not try to go through them to get past those rocks. The water will flow over, around, even under at times, but it does not try to push its way through because it cannot.

Whenever I am stressed, remembering this is calming because it reinforces so many important things. There is more than one solution to a problem. A solution can be an alternative path rather than the most direct route, and winding up where you want to be can be far more important than whether you got there the same way as everyone else.

Everyone has a different route, and as long as you reach your goal, how you got there is less of something to obsess over. Pounding yourself against the same immovable issue will not take away your worry so much as break you to pieces. Finding a way to get to the same goal may be far less anxiety-provoking in the long run, even if it’s roundabout or unexpected.

This reinforces a second principle reflected in the book, which is that people expend a lot of energy in worry, but that doesn’t necessarily impact the resolution of the problem.

In other words, I could waste a lot of energy worrying about a problem, but that doesn’t generate a solution, so much as draining me of much-needed mental and emotional energy. When I sense that worries are beginning to loom and gather like dark clouds, I often try to remind myself that all the worrying in the world won’t change the outcome. I am better served to channel my energies into doing what is within my power to do instead of depleting myself through negative thoughts.

In this situation, “blanking out your thoughts” or clearing your mind of any words, emotions, ideas, or situations can be helpful. It takes practice, but over time, not letting thoughts attach themselves and picturing nothing but blankness, whiteness/grayness, or fog that swallows distinct images can be useful for letting go of distressing worries.

It’s not that you’re ignoring important tasks. It’s that you’re acknowledging that worrying about them AT THIS MOMENT will not resolve your problems.

If these worried thoughts are plaguing you at night, promising yourself that you will take action in the morning or at some point the next day is far more helpful than lying in the dark, becoming anxious about something that you cannot change at 2 a.m.

If you’re an anxious person, likely, you’ll always be a worrier, so some measure of understanding your makeup is key.

Rather than seeking an all-out “cure,” embrace the idea that you’ll worry, but try to structure your thinking so that your problem can be broken down into manageable steps that you’ll address at times that you direct. And then stick to the agreement you’ve made with yourself so that you can give yourself the freedom to not worry needlessly at your most vulnerable moments.

Re-framing your thoughts is an important step in managing anxiety. When you can structure your approach a little and truly let go of what you cannot change (at certain times, anyway), you’ll grant yourself the power that you didn’t think you had over your anxiety. A situation has many sides, and the solution is in perspective.

How do you handle anxiety?

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May Hwa-Jones was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. She interned at Rolling Stone Magazine and Elle Magazine in college, and was a freelance editorial assistant at Family Life Magazine. With a Bachelor’s Degree from NYU and a Master’s Degree from Stanford University in Literature, May explored editorial life in NYC, but moved towards a teaching career instead, which led to a teaching certification in secondary education and the eventual achievement of a second Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Denver. As a licensed clinical social worker, May has practiced psychotherapy for nearly seventeen years in multiple settings, from substance abuse clinics in hospitals to community mental health centers, finally finding her passion working with families in a school for severely emotionally disabled children in Westchester County. She is married to a self-proclaimed red neck from Colorado and has three children, who are the beloved centers of chaos in her life. Formerly a ballet dancer and musician for over 20 years, she now does Zumba to keep her joints from locking up and is an avid cheer-soccer-tae kwon do-music-art-dance mom. Her husband regularly begs her to stop volunteering to run more activities, but she never listens to red necks.

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