A wonderful definition of anxiety is “an overestimation of threat plus an underestimation of ability to cope.” Where does an overestimation of threat come from? Often times, ambiguity can take on a life of its own. There is a fear that something catastrophic may happen, but that catastrophic event is really an unknown. Keeping that “catastrophic event” in the unconscious maintains the anxiety and can allow it to fester.
A perfect metaphor to understand this phenomenon is “the monster in the closet.” Many of us can remember times as children (or perhaps we have seen this in other children), when there is a firm belief that a monster lurks in the closet. A common response is to cower under the blanket, pulling it over your head. The monster’s response (in the imagination) is to grow as we shrink…it becomes bigger and bigger, with giant fangs!!! But… if we get up out of bed and boldly experience the fear as we walk toward the closet door, our hearts beat faster than ever as we clutch the doorknob and open it, and “poof!!” the monster is gone (and we can relax).
As we overestimate the threats of daily life, we are experiencing the growth of that kind of monster. Paradoxically, by avoiding our fears, we feed the monster. Another illustrative metaphor is the Chinese finger cuff. With this toy, as we pull two fingers further apart from each other, the grip becomes tighter. Anxiety (and other emotions) often work in the same manner. In the short run, it can feel adaptive to pull away from anxiety provoking experiences by avoiding them altogether, or through strategies such as boozing, or simply spacing out. The problem is that these strategies work. WHAT…how is that a problem??? It is a problem because these strategies temporarily lessens anxiety (it does not eliminate it), and reinforce the idea that the strategy is “needed.” Put differently, we unconsciously develop a stronger belief that we truly cannot cope with experiences like anxiety. In the meantime, that ambiguous monster grows. It feels as though it “must” be avoided.
The trick to escaping the Chinese finger cuff is to gently push our fingers into it. By coming in contact with the cuff, the grip is loosened and we are free! How do we do similarly come in contact with anxiety? One technique is “drilling down.” Let me give an example of somebody using the drilling down technique within one’s inner dialogue:
“I am afraid to go that event tonight.”
…”Why am I afraid to go the that event?”
“Because I could act foolishly.”
…”Rationally the chances of me acting foolishly are 50/50, at best. And if I did act foolishly, what would be the worst part about that?”
“It would be simply awful.”
…”What would be most awful about it?”
“I’d be embarrassed…”
…”What would be the worst part of being embarrassed? What might happen?”
“Well, it just wouldn’t feel good. I guess people could see me turn red and decide that I’m not worth being friends with.”
…”Rationally the chances of people judging me so negatively is low. But…what would be the hardest part if people did decide to judge me and ditch me?”
“I’d be lonely, but I guess I’d be better off than in friendships with people that judgmental.”
…”What would be the worst part about being lonely?”
“Nothing, really. It’d be tolerable, it would pass, and I’d make other friends”
…”How am I feeling now?”
“Relieved. I can survive whatever happens, and now I feel ready to tolerate anxiety, but it won’t consume me. I can still be present moment.”
We see how the drilling down technique can work. It helps to disarm the overestimation of threat, in a way that is not invalidating. It is important to remember that it is okay to have anxiety and other difficult emotions. And by coming in contact with it, the ambiguity is stripped away and we are reminded that ultimately, we CAN cope with whatever happens.
The drilling down technique is a great skill to practice internally, but techniques like these are often best learned through counseling or therapy. If anxiety or other emotions pose an obstacle to you seeking out therapy, try the drilling down technique for getting over that hump.