Weekly Thoughts on Anxiety

By: Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

This is an archive of the sends to my subscriber list.

2024

Outcome Focused

2/27/2024

The best way to get a specific outcome is to focus on what you can control now and leave the rest. Anxiety refuses to accept this, though. It demands a certain outcome.

Instead of measuring success based on the outcome (which is anxiety's measuring stick), try measuring it a different way by asking:

  • Did I act in a way consistent with my values?
  • No matter the outcome, how do I want to look back on this time and be proud of how I handled it?

We don't need anxiety's acceptance or approval. In fact, the only way to get it is by sacrificing our values. 

Beliefs About Thoughts

2/20/2024

Engaging with an automatic thought is a choice, but it doesn't feel like it because we often:

  1. Assume all thoughts are worth engaging in
  2. Over-identify with our thoughts, believing they are a reflection of who we are
  3. Believe our thoughts reflect reality

Creating distance from our thoughts takes consistent reminders that most thoughts are just static on the radio. 

 

Worry vs Planning

2/13/2024

Worry often disguises itself as planning. In reality, it's just circular, busy work for the brain.

Worry is circular, problem-focused, strives for certainty and perfection, ignores probability, and only focuses on possibility. 

Planning has an end, is solution-focused, accepts reasonable amounts of uncertainty, values probable outcomes, not possible outcomes, and acknowledges that no plan is perfect. 

 

Growth & Perfection

2/8/2024

On the surface, perfection seems like a worthwhile cause. Underneath, it's the source of self-criticism, guilt, and shame. All of these promote giving up or pursuing perfection even more until we burn out and are forced to give up.

Perfectionism makes promises of peace and success but delivers more pain and stagnation. Mistakes warn us of failure and rejection but deliver growth and resilience. 

 

Anticipatory Anxiety & Decisions

1/30/2024

Anticipatory anxiety is often worse than the feared situation itself.

If you look closely, anticipatory anxiety is often closely linked with indecisiveness. That is, delaying making a decision. 

For example, someone who can't sleep because they fear a big public speech the following day is likely indecisive about getting up on stage or calling in sick. Or whether to read word for word from the script or try to be more natural. 

Anticipatory anxiety often decreases as we start to make decisions about the feared event.

 

Self-Care

1/23/2024

Taking a paradoxical approach of leaning into anxiety rather than avoiding it is essential. But self-care is just as important.

Technically, self-care is likely to fall into the category of anxiety avoidance. When we label self-care as anxiety avoidance, it's a recipe for self-criticism, guilt, and feelings of failure.

Imagine a marathon runner beating himself up for taking a day off to allow his muscles to rest and repair or a race-car driver criticizing herself for making a pit stop to refuel and get new tires.

Anxiety work doesn't require living in a state of constant anxiety. It's about taking steps to counter the avoidance strategy in general.

It's helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. In general, am I leaning into anxiety more than before?

And no matter the answer, you still deserve self-care.

 

Core Fears

1/16/2024

Someone who is afraid of flying is said to have a flying phobia. Flying is not usually the fear, however. It's more of a trigger and doesn't paint the entire picture.

One person who fears flying might be afraid the plane will crash. Another person will fear having a panic attack mid-air. Another person will fear contamination or getting sick. These are the core fears for each individual. 

When we're trying to challenge anxiety, we want to make sure we are speaking to the core fear, not the surface-level fear or trigger.

 

Psychological Flexibility

1/9/2024

Being able to remain in the present moment, being open to automatic thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges that arise while also holding and acting on long-term values rather than short-term comforts, is called psychological flexibility.

It's an important muscle to attend to and work out regularly. And think of it as a group of muscles rather than just one.

A professional basketball player might go surfing and wake up the following day extremely sore. Though extremely fit, surfing activates the athlete's muscles in new ways.

To build this muscle specifically for anxiety, examining areas of your life where you already have strong psychological flexibility can be helpful. What is that feeling like? What skills do you utilize? How did you build it? How do you maintain it? Then, use this as a template to carry over to anxiety's playing field.

Most anxiety work is about fine-tuning the existing psychologically flexible muscles.

 

Intentions

1/4/2024

This is the time of year when many of us set intentions. Anxiety work is all about examining our own intentions (e.g., "Was I trying to escape from anxiety or lean into it?") and slowly changing our habitual way of responding and relating to it.

Just like getting a new gym membership, no matter how well thought out our intentions are, our brains love to default back to their old routines.

One way to assist with overriding our brain's autopilot is to identify the reasons or motivations for your intention: Why did I choose this intention? How will my life be different if I stick to this intention? How will my relationships be different? By defining our motivations and values, we build a resource that we can tap into when our brain tries to suck us back into its old routine.

Another resource to draw off is reminding ourselves that research has disproven the old saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" and it's called neuroplasticity.

One of my intentions this year is to create a free, online, comprehensive resource for anxiety. I look forward to sharing that once it's ready (enough).

Happy New Year!

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