Anxiety is an epidemic in the United States. Some 40 million American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder every year according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). As a long-practicing psychiatrist, I find this statistic tragic. I know that for many, anxiety, phobias, PTSD and insomnia are hard to overcome. Between the expensive, time-consuming proposition of long-term talk therapy and the side effects of different medications, anxiety can seem like a life sentence. But it doesn’t have to be. There is another way — a simple, step-by-step method that puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you the tools for leaving anxiety behind for good.
It’s called LPA — Learning / Philosophizing / Action. It takes the opposite approach to long-term talk therapy. Instead of venturing down a long path to your first memories, you clearly identify and tackle the problem. Then, you solve it. By pinpointing your focus, you can overcome anxiety, as well phobias, PTSD and insomnia. You learn to focus on the problem, challenge the thinking that led to the problem in the first place, and then take action to replace old behaviors and habits with new ones. Once you learn LPA and incorporate it into your routine, you can practice it any time. Following the steps will enable you to escape your anxiety, shake free of its symptoms and get fast relief.
Before you begin the LPA exercise, you need to relax somewhere that is quiet and peaceful. Sit in a chair that’s comfortable and supportive. As part of the LPA, relaxation tools are taught. You want to be able to focus, so you are in the best position to help yourself. You will need to quiet the mind.
Step One: Learn. Now that you’re relaxed, it’s time to take a focused look at the problem. Once you realize that the problem is just a problem, you can define it — and it will stop defining you. That’s when you can begin to separate yourself from your anxiety. So ask yourself:
What, exactly, do I feel?
What makes me anxious?
Focus on how anxiety affects you. How a phobia holds you back or how PTSD is controlling you. Perhaps it means you are unable to make a decision without feeling like it’s the wrong choice. Or you can’t focus on anything else but the anxiety-producing problem. Perhaps it triggers a tight stomach, headaches, a racing heartbeat, sweats, muscle tension, sleeplessness, flashbacks or the trap of should of, could of, would of. When anxiety hits, you may become agitated, and lose patience with your friends and family. Then, ask yourself:
What is my first memory of feeling this way?
What else was going on at the time?
What did I learn?
Write down all the details you can, including how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Step Two: Philosophize. Time to see an overview and challenge the thinking to led to this problem. As you start recognizing the origins of your anxiety, you can think about how it has affected your life. Ask yourself:
Did someone else convince me to feel this way?
Is it possible I picked up this anxiety from a parent?
What’s the big picture?
How has a faulty learned belief expanded?
Sometimes we inherit our parents’ anxieties, or they teach us that the world is a dangerous, risky place. But that is faulty learning, and it can be fixed. Consider this 2+2 = 3 example:
A child walks into kindergarten and imagine the child was taught and convinced that 2 + 2 = 3.
All it takes is one lesson to learn that’s wrong in that instance. For issues of anxiety, phobias, PTSD and insomnia it’s more complicated than that, but very doable. Think about how you picked up other people’s anxieties, or were encouraged to feel anxiety over certain aspects of life or fear certain situations. It may not have been done on purpose at all. You may have grown up thinking that feeling anxious was perfectly normal. Now, as an adult living with your anxiety, consider its impact on you. How does it limit you, affect your work or your relationships? If you could undo its power in your life, would you?
Step Three: Act. Now it’s time to unlearn those behaviors. There are many sets of tools to do this, but one that works very effectively when practiced frequently is probable versus possible. Sometimes all it takes to conquer anxiety is looking at what’s triggering it and reducing the fear down to size. It goes like this: You may be anxious that you could catch a cold from using a public washroom in a restaurant, but how likely it is? It’s possible, but is it probable? Ask yourself:
I am anxious about X happening, but is it probable that it will happen, or is it just possible that it will happen?
What is the likelihood of it really happening?
If you’re not sure what the answer is, go down that rabbit hole and research the statistics. Read about how people really catch colds. I have been able to guide countless patients to realize the difference between a possible risk and a probable risk. When they realize the difference the risk is far smaller in reality, their anxiety is greatly reduced.
Try to do these steps at least three times a week, for perhaps five minutes at a time. You don’t need to force yourself to feel feelings or think thoughts that scare you or make you uncomfortable. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by fear, stop the exercise, get up, and resolve to try again the next day. This process works in small, easy steps.
Using LPA, you bring a new set of perspectives on an old set of beliefs and problems. You take action by consciously thinking through and reconsidering an old pattern. Success is a matter of practicing the steps consistently, and staying focused as you do. The more dedicated you are to practicing LPA, the better it works. That’s because when a person does something successfully a number of times, the success-producing behaviors become more and more a part of who you are. They turn your thought and behavior patterns in a positive, productive direction. Instead of a locked-in response to a what-if fear, you can look at it from a fresh perspective. Then, a what-if that seemed like an inescapable fact becomes escapable. By taking down that all-or-nothing thinking, brick by brick, you take action to change your life.
Robert London, MD, is a well-known psychiatrist, educator, and writer. A practitioner for 40 years, he is founder and former head of the short-term psychotherapy unit at NYU Langone Medical Center, and a pioneer in consumer health care radio and TV programming. His new book is Find Freedom Fast: Short-Term Therapy That Works. Learn more at findfreedomfast.com.