You can work on overcoming anxiety by accepting feelings and choosing opposite actions, explains Graham Price
Most people believe that our mind drives our behaviour. That’s true. But most don’t realise the opposite is also true. Our behaviour creates our mindset. If we always behave powerfully, we’ll develop a powerful mindset. If we behave in limiting ways, we’ll develop a weaker mindset.
This can be illustrated by a client who came to see me with a dog phobia. I asked him if he knew how his phobia arose and he answered that he was bitten by a dog 20 years ago. However, this fact didn’t explain his phobia at all; what had created his phobia was that ever since he’d been bitten by the dog, he’d been avoiding dogs, and every time he had avoided a dog this had reinforced the unconscious belief that dogs are dangerous. To resolve his phobia, he needed to engage with dogs, or at least walk past them, instead of avoiding them. But this wasn’t easy, as being near a dog made him very anxious. The first step was to work on accepting his anxiety while he walked past the dog.
Accepting the Feeling
Anxiety itself is harmless; no-one has ever been harmed by anxiety. In fact, no-one has ever been harmed by any feeling. Even feeling cold or hungry is harmless. Being cold or hungry can harm us, but the feeling is just a messaging system that passes up some nerves, and along some neurons, to let the brain know the body is cold or hungry. Those feelings are harmless.
Anxiety is bearable. In fact, there’s only one feeling that isn’t bearable, and that’s extreme pain. My client disputed this. When he got anxious, he said his heart raced, his breathing was accelerated, and he was sweating. However, when I asked him to describe how he felt when he had to run for a bus, the symptoms were the same. Whether symptoms seem bearable depends on the context and how we think about them. If we’ve just run for a bus, these symptoms seem normal. If there’s a dog present, they seem abnormal. But they’re the same symptoms.
There are three questions and answers that can be used when experiencing any uncomfortable feeling.
• Is it harming me? – No, no-one’s ever been harmed by a feeling.
• Is it bearable? – Yes, any feeling, short of extreme pain, is bearable.
• So, what exactly is the problem with feeling … (e.g., anxious)? – There isn’t one.
Practice feeling uncomfortable
I shared the following suggestions with my client so he could practice the three questions before using them when near a dog. The idea is to create a situation where you are a bit uncomfortable (a minor feeling) and practice the three questions. For example, you could turn down the hot water in the shower (no need for a cold shower) to make yourself uncomfortable and ask the three questions. Or you could run up some stairs or do another form of exercise to make your muscles a bit sore and accelerate your breathing, and ask the three questions.
Choosing the Opposite Action
My phobia client returned after a week. He told me that walking past the first dog was challenging, but once he’d done that, the second one was easier. He’d walked past 20 dogs in that week!
I successfully resolved my anxiety about speaking to groups in my early twenties using this tool. I was anxious about the most common source of anxiety worldwide: being anxious. That led to me accepting the anxiety, which diminished it. I had been avoiding speaking to groups when I had a choice, so I chose the opposite action and joined Toastmasters. My anxiety was quickly resolved.
Accepting the feeling and choosing the opposite action will resolve many mind-based issues involving feelings. (There are some feelings where ‘doing the opposite’ is neither appropriate nor helpful, however. Examples are feeling cold or hungry.)
This method can also be reversed: choose a powerful action and accept any uncomfortable feelings that result; this will help to build a more powerful mindset.