Nearly four in 10 Americans are significantly more anxious about health, safety, finances, relationships, and politics than they were in 2017, the American Psychiatric Association Public Opinion Poll found earlier this year. It’s no wonder, given our cultural backdrop of political divisiveness, an uncertain economy, an uptick in natural disasters, and an enduring healthcare crisis, that 57 percent of women and 38 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 49 reported higher levels of anxiety.
Increasingly, people are turning to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has a proven track record of efficacy and is considered by many to be the gold standard in the field of psychotherapy, to help manage their anxiety in the moment. CBT equips clients with specific tools to challenge and change harmful patterns of thought and behavior. In contrast to the more popular talk therapy, which focuses on unearthing your personal history to unpack your psychological issues with the hope that greater self-awareness will lead to positive change, CBT is a targeted form of therapy that focuses on a single issue (anxiety, depression, insomnia) each session for a finite amount of time and provides concrete tools to help clients modify behavior and/or thought patterns that interfere with their wellbeing. As such, CBT lends itself to microsteps that will help you deal with anxious thoughts or behaviors in real time.
Thrive Global tapped two of the country’s leading cognitive behavioral therapists: Judith Beck, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (who also happens to be the daughter of Aaron Beck, Ph.D., known as the father of CBT), and CBT psychologist Reid Wilson, Ph.D., author of Stopping the Noise in Your Head: the New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, to give you a quick actionable guide to healthily cope with your anxiety in the now.
It’s important to keep in mind that anxiety has a place and purpose in our lives and our evolution. “Anxiety is quite normal,” Beck notes. “It’s not possible or safe to eliminate it,” because it alerts us to danger. Indeed, a recent study indicates that a certain amount of anxiety helps motivate us to get things done and actualize our goals. But when anxious thoughts strike in the moment and threaten to throw you off your game, these CBT techniques will help:
1) Distinguish Between “Signals” and “Noise”
“We feel anxious when it seems that the risk of a situation (real or imagined) is great — and our resources (either internal or external) are low,” Beck explains. That’s when the panic sets in and you start to grow further and further away from the moment into an imagined future of peril, Wilson says. CBT specialists help clients objectively assess risk more accurately and recognize and build additional resources to anchor them in a more tangible reality.
Wilson uses a technique he developed that involves distinguishing between a “signal,” a legitimate worry that may produce symptoms (i.e. a racing heart, for example, or sweaty palms), and other “noise” — irrational, unrelenting thoughts that may revolve around a justifiable concern, but one you can’t do anything about any longer or in the moment. A signal is a catalyst for productive action, like sitting down to write that paper you need to write. Noise is a relentless rotation of thoughts that plague your mind obsessively throughout the day and/or night.
2) Distract Your Mind
To disrupt the noise, focus on doing another activity. Wilson suggests saying the alphabet out of order while keeping track of each letter to make sure you recite every single one. It’s actually quite hard — try it! — and it will liberate your mind, at least for the moment, from the incessant loop of harmful thoughts. Alternatively, sing your problem aloud, which will help you realize the ridiculousness and fruitlessness of the noise. Everyone’s technique will be different. Some might breathe through it; others will find it helpful to say a mantra. Experiment and find what works for you.
3) Develop Another Inner Voice to Stand Up to the Mean One
Develop an inner voice — “a second part of you,” or an “executive voice,” Wilson calls it — that soothes the self-attacking noisy one and actively disrupts it. Even if your worry keeps popping back up (and it will,) practice your disruptive response each time. The noisy thoughts have no redeeming value, Wilson says, so you have to create a counterbalancing voice in your head that steps up and says: “You’re doing it again. It’s maladaptive and unhelpful.” Then practice your preferred technique to challenge and start dismantling the toxic thought pattern.
4) Replace Dark Thoughts With Bright Ones
Beck thinks that when you start predicting the worst, it’s good to ask yourself: “Well, what’s the best that could possibly happen? And then, what’s something in between, which is the most likely scenario?” she says. She advises confronting the worst possibility or fear and then envisioning yourself successfully coping with it. “For example, if you lost your job,” she says, “you might imagine yourself in a new position, where you’re feeling comfortable and confident.” Doing so will help you believe that you have the capacity to cope and create a good outcome for your future.
5) Practice Every Day
Wilson warns that you will feel uncertain and distressed even while you’re practicing your disruptive techniques. However, if you keep habitually acknowledging your dark thoughts and disrupting them, you’ll slowly start to gain control over your mind.
“This stuff doesn’t go down easy,” he says, but if you do it systematically, over time you’ll get better at managing your anxiety.
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