Reduce Anxiety: One Easy Change Almost Everyone Overlooks
It’s oversimplified to put it this way, but there’s a part of you that thinks and another part of you that feels. These parts overlap and heavily influence one another - yet they are distinct in many ways. You might think of them as your “rational system” and your “emotional system.” Neither system is bad, though the emotional system tends to get more negative PR. They are both completely necessary to your everyday life and they are both active all the time to some degree or another - whether you realize it or not.
These two systems have their own unique responsibilities. The rational system takes care of things like abstract thinking, creativity, future planning, math, and science. The emotional system is usually busy playing “cops and robbers” - categorizing all of life into safe or unsafe.
Then it seeks to move you away from the unsafe and towards the safe.
You might think of the rational system as the driver of a car and the emotional system as the
transmission and brakes. The transmission in a vehicle has a lot that the driver doesn’t have,
like the ability to move a huge chunk of metal at 120mph or to bring it to a screeching stop. But the driver has something the transmission doesn’t have: choice.
I also use the word “agency.” When you’re experiencing anxiety (or stress), your “driver” often under-functions while your transmission or brakes are over-functioning. This is when you feel a loss of your sense of choice, or agency. I often hear from clients that anxiety makes them feel out of control. Their transmission or brakes are working all too well, but the driver seems to be asleep at the wheel. This happens to all of us at some time or another.
So, I thought I’d offer up one of the quickest and easiest changes that can help you start to rebuild your sense of choice, agency, self-control. This change is always possible, it’s free, and it doesn’t require much effort at all. Also, you don’t need hardly any skill or practice. It’s...
ANYTHING. Change anything.
Change requires choice. And there is no change too small when it comes to gaining a greater sense of choice or agency. Of course, the change needs to be something that will have neutral or positive long term results. But we can very easily overlook the effectiveness of making small changes when we’re overwhelmed. We often imagine that the only changes that mean anything are drastic ones.
Here’s an example. I had a client once who was struggling with intense social anxiety in the mornings when they were driving to work. From the time they left their house, they experienced a growing sense of dread about showing up to their shift. As we worked on deeper issues, I also suggested that we try to lessen the immediate intensity of their anxiety by changing... anything.
The plan we came up with is that my client would take a new route to work that would allow them to see new surroundings. We also decided that they would park in a different spot
everyday. Not only did this provide a neutral distraction, it also built their sense of choice and
agency. And it was easy! It didn’t completely cure their anxiety. That’s a long term project. But it immediately reduced anxiety just a little and added to their belief that they could make bigger changes.
Don’t overlook the small changes. They are meaningful and powerful in their own little way. A small, easy change -or a series of small, easy changes - could be all you need to jumpstart the bigger changes.
- Michael King, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at CCC