Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.” So it is true with me and probably with you as well. When we follow our anxiety-ridden thoughts to their destination, inevitably we arrive at dark and fearsome places.
Anxiety is always about what MIGHT go wrong. It hijacks our thought processes and takes us into fretful realms. We may rise up in revolt, but the flight path seems predetermined and out of our control.
If this process is all too familiar, it’s because we have boarded that plane many times. We think of an upcoming event or a task, and we play out the scenarios in our minds. Then, as it often does, that inner terrorist rises from his seat and, before we can stop it, we are captive passengers on Air Anxiety.
If you’re like me, you have worked hard to avoid anxiety’s emotional hijacking. And we have tried a variety of methods to do so: affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, changing the thought channel. Some of us have felt temporary relief from anxiety through the use of alcohol, prescribed and unprescribed drugs, gaming, Internet, and Facebook. Though we resist the tendency, we end up—time and again—passengers on an anxious journey.
Finally, after decades of struggling with anxiety, I have found a workable solution to this emotional hijacking in Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT). And more specifically, in a very accessible book called Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong that applies the core tenets of ACT to anxiety.
“The principle reasons we get anxious is to protect ourselves from anticipated pain,” according to Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of the book.
I treated a client who nearly lost his teaching job because kept relapsing into alcohol and drug use to escape all his anxious thoughts. It was only after introducing him to ACT’s techniques that he was able to release himself from anxiety.
Pain is an inevitable part of life. Because we have an aversion to pain, we all become anxious at the thought of it. And ACT acknowledges that all of us—even Zen masters—have anxious thoughts during a typical day.
This is because our brains developed in a very threatening environment. We were not only predator but also prey. What was bad was bad AND what could be bad was also bad. So actual danger and the possibility of danger became one and the same thought.
ACT, however, provides a powerful psychological tool to cope with anxiety. One of the keys to releasing from anxiety, Wilson and Dufrene say, is not engaging it. When we spot a bear in the distance, it’s best to back away and create distance. Same with our anxious thoughts. When we feel ourselves being pulled into the thought, we need to disengage.
How do we do that? By first understanding that all thinking is divided into two categories: the ruminating mind and the experiencing mind. Rumination is what happens when the mind wanders. Its domain is the past and the future. The experiencing mind is about connection to the present moment. If this sounds like mindfulness, then you are right.
Once we have this awareness, we can apply the concepts Wilson and Troy present that are based on ACT principles. They recommend that when a thought begins to generate anxiety, we apply this three-step process to release from its grip:
- Identify the thought. When we name the anxious thought, we alert ourselves to it and avoid stepping into its snare.
- Step back from it. The more we fight the thought, the more we get swept away in it. This includes trying to change the anxious thought to a positive thought. Brain research has proved that the thought will recoil with even more power if we try to push it away from our consciousness. Instead, we release (defuse) from the thought rather than fuse with it.
- Make contact with the present moment. Change your attention from the future or past to the here and now. Instead of sitting on the coach allowing your mind to toggle back and forth between the past and future, find something that you value to engage your mind in the present. This keeps you from endlessly reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. “Anxiety is always out of place in the present moment,” according to Wilson and Dufrene.
The key, then, to freedom from anxiety is to remain in the experiencing mind. Anxiety cannot co-exist with the present moment because anxiety is always what could happen, not what is happening.
When we apply these three simple steps at the onset of an anxious thinking, we can find a freedom from anxiety that is simply more effective than other methods. With practice, we can come to know a freedom from anxiety that is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.
“If you can learn to remain connected to what’s going on in your life right now, accepting both the sweet and the sad, holding lightly the stories about what’s possible while turning your actions toward things that matter to you” then you have succeeded, as Wilson and Dufrene say, in avoiding the snare of anxiety.
May you all experience the joy of an anxiety-free life.