Intrusive thoughts and disastrous thinking used to haunt Claire Eastham, until she discovered “The Anxiety Trick”.
As I scrolled through Netflix for a movie to watch that evening, I decided to settle on the cult horror classic The Evil Dead. About halfway through, I was reminded of a mental health epiphany I had watching the same film at the cinema in 2013.
I was struggling a great deal with my anxiety at the time. Intrusive thoughts and disastrous thinking haunted me constantly. I felt on edge and worried about things that I couldn't control.
"What if my boss realizes that I'm actually rubbish and I lose my job?"
"What if my boyfriend gets fed up with dealing with me and leaves?"
Some of these thoughts were really extreme, such as:
"What if everyone I love dies in some horrific accident?"
My intrusive thoughts tend to snowball in that way. Recently, a cognitive-behavioral therapist had pointed out to me during a session that I was prone to "cognitive distortions," such as "disastrous" or "catastrophic" thinking – and I couldn't disagree.
Once my mind has even the slightest sniff of a problem, it multiplies said problem by a thousand.
Why are mere thoughts so… scary?
Rationally thinking, I knew that all of my concerns were either unfounded or completely out of my control. After all, I was doing well at work, and my boyfriend and I were happy together. So why did I feel so threatened? The vicious cycle exasperated me, and I constantly tried to fight or block the negative feelings, telling myself I was being silly. But this approach rarely worked.
While watching the horror film in the cinema, I cringed and screamed several times. The demon terrorizing the teenagers was hideous. I imagined myself in that situation, stuck in an isolated cabin without access to help, and felt vulnerable by proxy.
At one particular jump scare, I squealed, covered my eyes, and curled into the seat. This reaction was ridiculous because I knew deep down that the demon couldn't jump through the cinema screen and attack me. So why did I feel threatened? Why was my brain reacting this way to fantasy?
The "Anxiety Trick"
Then it hit me. It's a trick! A horror film tricks the brain into feeling scared when there isn't an actual physical threat. As this realization began to permeate, I likened the experience to anxiety or panic attacks and noticed the similarity. When the intrusive thoughts circulate in my brain, I feel like something terrible will happen. My body responds accordingly, even though I know I'm perfectly safe.
Dr. David Carbonell writes about "The Anxiety Trick" extensively, claiming that people with anxiety experience discomfort and get fooled into treating it like danger.
It was a strange setting in which to have a psychological breakthrough – with popcorn stuck to my teeth and all – but at that moment, I felt euphoric! I was being tricked into maintaining my anxiety.
Now that I understood this, I could take steps to tackle it.
How to defuse the "Anxiety Trick"
1. Take a moment to really feel the emotion.
From countless experiences, I realized that no matter how hard I try to block out negative feelings, I can't. In fact, this only intensifies them.
As Carbonell says, "The way to disarm the Anxiety Trick is to increasingly spend time with anxiety, to expose yourself to the thoughts and sensations, and allow them to subside over time."
So, allow yourself to experience the emotion with zero resistance and examine how it makes you feel. Make peace with feeling uncomfortable and let the negative thoughts subside naturally.
2. Remember: you're not really in danger
Remind yourself that just like when watching a horror film, you've been tricked into thinking you're in danger when you're not. For example, when this occurs, I remind myself that the threat isn't real. I might not be able to fight these thoughts/feelings. However, I can at least make myself feel more comfortable until they pass.
Breathing techniques are a great way to ease the symptoms of anxiety. Activating pressure points can also be soothing. My favorite is the union valley point (located in the webbing between your thumb and index finger). Click here for instructions.
Other simple things such as making sure you're sat comfortably and that your clothing isn't too restrictive can also help. You could also try using a relaxing pulse point aromatherapy oil on your wrists and temples. Jasmine is my personal favorite, although lavender is also lovely. Use anything that provides relief.
3. Ask yourself: is the emotion valid?
Once the intensity of emotions has eased, think about whether there is any valid evidence to substantiate the intrusive thoughts. A classic CBT exercise encourages patients to look for hard evidence supporting or challenging an irrational view.
For example, "I'm worried that my boss is going to sack me" could be challenged with: "Has your boss said anything specific to imply this? Has HR been in contact? Have people complained about the quality of work you deliver?"
Or, "I think my boyfriend is going to leave me" could be challenged with:
"According to my notes, you went out for dinner last night and had a great time."
"He was also talking about going on holiday next year. Surely this completely disputes your claim?"
More often than not, we lack tangible evidence and rely entirely on our emotions. Seeking evidence for an irrational thought is an excellent way to further highlight “the trick”.
So, if you're feeling anxious, I highly recommend going on Netflix and watching something that'll terrify you. It's all a trick... you'll see!
NPS-ALL-NP-00292 MARCH 2021