How many of you played the “Punch Buggy” game as a kid (or as an adult)? It’s pretty simple. When you see a Volkswagen Beetle, also known as a “punch buggy”, you can punch anyone else who is playing with you (with the exception of the driver, if you are in a car). Sure, there are many variations of this game. Some people yell “Punch Buggy (insert color),” some just yell “(insert color) one!” But my absolute favorite way that this game is played is the way my uncle Jonny plays it. If you see a punch buggy and let’s say it is blue, you say “Punch buggy (insert a super long name for that color).”
“Punch buggy cotton candy ocean wave jellybean blue!”
And you get to punch someone each time for each different word that you use to describe the color. The version of this game quickly ended in my family when I said things like “punch buggy graphite storm cloud steel metal box jail cell pencil gray,” and left my brother Jake with 10 bruises.
No matter how you play it though, the only way to win is by hurting someone else, and in the process hurting yourself. And my childhood was filled with these kinds of games. Slaps, for example, is a game where you have your hands over someone else’s and they try to hit your hands. If you flinch, they get to slap your hands. Or, we used to play this game called Chicken. Two people would go back and forth hitting each other’s hands until someone said “chicken” and gave up. How about the game “bloody knuckles,” where each person makes a fist and they each punch each other’s fists until someone is bleeding or someone gives up? In all of these games, and these are just a few of them, you will inevitably get hurt, even if you come out victorious.
When we play these games and when we teach children these games, we create not only a culture of violence, but a culture where people don’t learn how to say no. If we think about this, it is exactly why we are having an anxiety epidemic.
We play games with ourselves. Can we outlast the anxiety? Can we deal with it without asking for help or saying no? How long can we last before we are bleeding, before it is too late to stop playing?
Anxiety is the kid who tries to get you to play with them. Anxiety is manipulative. It tells you that if you play, you will have fun, and if you don’t you are weak. Our irrational and catastrophic thoughts try to lure us in, and when we let them, we get hurt.
With all of these games and with anxiety, there is only one way to win: to not play at all.
Don’t engage in harmful conversations with anxiety. The only thing that comes from these conversations is doubt. Don’t allow anxiety to play games with you or to make you feel like it has control. As soon as you listen to it, as soon as you enter the game, you are sure to lose. An enemy becomes powerless when you stop acknowledging its existence.
But not engaging with anxiety feels impossible. So how do we do it?
- Recognize when anxiety is talking
If you are feeling worried or having troubling thoughts, most likely anxiety is trying to talk to you. Those initial feelings are anxiety’s way of inviting you to play. The reason why we often accept this invitation is because we don’t know how to say no. It all happens so quickly. We go from one thought to a million in seconds. But if we recognize the initial thought, we can shut it down and decline the invitation.
- Name it to tame it
When we name our feelings, we gain control over them. Check in with yourself to see how you are feeling, and only engage in conversations with emotions that feel helpful.
- Talk about it out loud
Anxiety becomes most powerful when we deal with it alone. Have you ever realized that once you said what you were anxious about out loud, you immediately feel better? Or you realize that you were either overthinking or catastrophizing? I know I do this all the time. We can have these realizations when we talk out loud about our anxiety instead of keeping it in our heads. This is proven scientifically, because when we speak out loud, we force our thoughts to slow down as we are engaging in the language centers of our brains as well.
- Know when to say no
Sometimes anxiety can be helpful. It can protect us. For example, if you worry about getting skin cancer, you might be more likely to wear sunscreen. But too much anxiety is harmful, and that’s when we need to say no to it. If you are constantly worried about getting skin cancer and you can’t shake the thoughts, you might never leave your house. There is a difference between helpful and hurtful anxiety, and engaging in conversation with hurtful anxiety is where things start to go wrong. Ask yourself “What are my thoughts trying to tell me?” “How are my thoughts helping me?”
Just like with the “punch buggy” game, you only win when you don’t play.