Earlier this month I had the privilege of giving a public lecture on the subject of anxiety. Here is the text of that lecture (complete with Power Point slides/videos inserted).
Let’s start by finding out if you are prone to worry. I have three brief questions for you; don’t need to answer out loud.
Question one. It’s 6 AM here on the west coast and your cell phone rings. Before you even look at the screen to see who’s calling, what is your first thought?
A. “It’s 9 AM on the east coast and someone’s calling to tell me I’ve won the lottery.” Or,
B. “6 AM?! Somebody’s in trouble!”
Question 2. You pull up to a red light in your car and you’ve got 15 to 20 seconds before the light turns green. Where does your mind wander?
A. Good thoughts about all the people you love, and those who love you, and how great life is going? Or,
B1. “How can I make sure my 4-year-old will someday get into a good university?” Or,
B2. “I’ve texted my teenager 6 times this morning, but they’ve only answered 5 times. What’s wrong?!” Or,
B3.“If a meteor the size of Montana lands in my front yard tomorrow, will I escape by taking the Guide or I-5?
Question 3: When you saw the promotional materials for tonight’s event, “Anxiety Reduction Tips,” was your first thought:
A. “Anxiety? What’s that?” Or,
B. “Yes, I could use those tips.”
If you answered B to any of these questions I’m glad you’re here. We’re going to offer FIVE practical strategies that reduce anxiety, worry, and fear and then wrap up by giving you two resources to help you on your journey.
The subject of anxiety is a great one because, as many of you already realize, feeling anxious feels yucky. Whether it’s that low-grade sense of dread that “something terrible is about to happen,” to a full-blown panic attack, when you’re in the anxiety zone it feels miserable. And Willow [Weston] and her team of volunteers here at Collide are dedicated to reducing your misery; or to say it the other way around, to increase your emotional and spiritual well-being. So, this is a great topic.
However, to be honest with you, giving a talk on this subject is a little bit tricky because I know there are certain topics, just the mention of which, can trigger anxiety. So, I’ll make you a promise: I’ll do my level best to avoid mentioning any trigger words. Which means,
- I will NOT mention an 8-legged insect that start with “s” and end in “pider.”
- I will NOT talk about R-I-S-K because I know that just hearing that word gives some people the heebie-jeebies.
- I will NOT mention a certain, semi-dormant, volcano only 60 miles east of here….
So, I’m not going to mention those three topics.
On the other hand, I want to tell you stories of real people who’ve overcome real fear which means, I may inadvertently slip up and mention a topic that rubs you the wrong way. If I do I apologize ahead of time. This also gives me opportunity to introduce our first… Anxiety Reduction Tip.
And I call your attention to my right hand. Watch closely. It’s clenched and I’m going to tell it, “Relax.” It went limp. I’ll do it again, Clenched, “Relax.” It went limp. This tip is called the Limp Noodle exercise. This is also known as Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
It works like this. Get comfortable in your chair, both feet flat on the floor, and you’re going to do a body scan from top to the bottom looking for clenched muscles. Starting at the top of your head, look for tension in your scalp, forehead, temples, cheeks, jaw, neck, shoulders, all the way to your toes. Every time you find a clenched muscle, make it go limp.
The reason this is such an effective strategy is b/c when your body is totally relaxed it’s impossible to feel the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
When you potty-trained your kids you taught them, “You’re the boss of your bladder.” In the same way, “You’re the boss of your muscles.” You can clench and un-clench them at will.
A word of caution: it’s easier to get into Limp Noodle Mode than it is staying there. I know, I’ve done experiments on myself to see how long I can stay totally relaxed. I do my body scan, get totally relaxed, and then at the 30 second mark, my brain gets bored and wanders off somewhere. At the 45 second mark I realize, “Hey! Some muscles tensed up again without me realizing it.” I start over, going from top to bottom un-clenching tense muscles. Some people do body scans 20 times a day.
I told a client once, “I can last about 30 seconds in relax mode and she said, “Ha! I’ve got you beat by a mile!” I said, “Really? What’s your secret of success?” she said, “I do YOGA!” which of course involves regulated breathing, which is another valuable skill.
OK, let’s take a look at this picture of a kitty cat.
There’s a lot of fear going on in this photo. Scientists who study the biology of anxiety explain that when a cat sees danger adrenaline gets dumped into their bloodstream. And adrenaline causes many physical symptoms, the first of which is tight muscles (that’s where we get the phrase, “scared stiff”).
The cat also experiences rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath. The cat is deciding, “Do I scratch his nose or climb a tree?” Fight or flight.
Humans have adrenaline also. This is good because it gives us energy when we face danger. But there’s a huge difference between cats and humans. If my cat Zelda is any example, she rarely gets anxious. To the best of my knowledge, there are only three situations when she gets a jolt of adrenaline.
- 4th of July when fireworks go off.
- New Year’s Eve when fireworks go off.
- When I cook, and the smoke alarm goes off.
That means in a year Zelda experiences anxiety only 6 or 7 times, max.
By my estimate humans get at least 20 jolts of adrenaline before lunch:
- “what if I’m late for work?”
- “What if my kid gets picked on at school.”
- “What if that meteor lands in my front yard?”
And if you read the newspaper or listen to the radio you can double that number.
If you watch TV news, triple it.
Those jolts of adrenaline may not be as great as when a cat sees a dog, but the problem with all those jolts of adrenaline, unless we scratch a nose or climb a tree, we build up an excess of adrenaline in our system. And doctors tell us that’s not healthy. Which leads to anxiety reduction tip #2:
Go for a walk.
Next time you feel tense, put on comfortable shoes, go outside, and walk around your house a few times . This gets your heart beating, breath fresh air, and it flushes the adrenaline out of your system.
So, we’ve got LIMP NOODLE and GO FOR A WALK.
Anxiety reduction tip number three is a fun one, my favorite: name your fear and talk back to it.
I call mine the Alien b/c when I was a kid I loved those cheesy sci-fi movies of the 50s. Movie makers created aliens from outer space attempting to terrify us little kids, but b/c the films were so low budget even I knew the aliens were just actors in dorky looking costumes.
So now, when I experience some anxiety I say, “Look here, Alien, I know that you’re trying to scare me. But I know you’re just an actor in a dorky looking costume. So, scram.” And that helps.
A guy in my office once told me when he wakes up in the morning he almost immediately gets hammered with “What if?” questions.
- “What if something bad happens to my wife today?”
- “What if something bad happens to my kids?”
- “What if…?” “What if…?” “What if…?”
This is why anxiety is called the WHAT IF? Disease.
So, he named his fear, “Hammer.” He now tells hammer, “Quit hammering on me, beat it, scram, go jump in the Nooksack river.” And that helps.
I said to a lady in my office once, “If you were to name your fear, what would you call it?” she thought for a second and said, “I’m going to call him Jack.” I said, “That’s great, we’re going to talk back to Jack.”
Then I said, “Just out of curiosity, why Jack?” She said, “My preschooler has a Jack in the Box toy and when we turn the crank we never know when Jack is going to pop out and scare the willies out of us.”
I said, ‘Excellent. Next time Jack pops out to scare you, talk back to him and say, “Beat it, buster!” “Scram!” “Get your grubby mitts off the steering wheel of my life.”
Had I thought of it at the time, I would have suggested she say this,
“Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more!”
So we’ve got: LIMP NOODLE, GO FOR A WALK, NAME YOUR FEAR and TALK BACK TO IT.
I’m going to spend a little more time with tip number 4 because it is THE MOST EFFECTIVE. But it’s also the least popular. And you’ll understand why as soon as I say it:
Anxiety Reduction Tip Number 4 is called, “Face your fears”
I know that doesn’t sound fun. But it works.
People numb the pain of anxiety in a variety of ways, but the most popular strategy for dealing with anxiety is Avoidance. “I won’t look at it, I won’t think about it. I’ll pretend it’s not there and it’ll go away.” The thought is, “If I avoid fear it’ll decrease in intensity.”
I have bad news for you; it doesn’t work that way. Avoiding fear only makes it stronger. It’s like the old joke, “Avoiding fear expecting it to decrease in intensity is like throwing meat to a lion hoping it becomes a vegetarian.”
So, instead of avoidance we’re going to face our fears.
I learned this from an award-winning physician from California. He said, “Yes I’ve won awards, not because I’m the world’s greatest doctor but because I used to work 100 hours per week. And the reason I worked so many hours is b/c I had social anxiety.” He said, “My safe place was my examination room in the hospital where I work.”
He said just the thought of walking into the crowded lobby of his hospital and onto the crowded sidewalk loaded with pedestrians gave him a panic attack. So, he’d work in his office until 1:00 or 2:00 o’clock in the morning and leave when the lobby and city streets were empty.
Well, he got so fed up being held hostage by fear he decided to do something about it. He said, “I’m going to quit avoiding and face my fear once for all.”
So, he took the elevator down to the lobby midday, (which was a big deal for someone with social anxiety) and stood there as long as he could. He lasted 15 seconds.
And he says they were a terrible 15 seconds. His muscles were tense, rapid breathing, heart pounding. He said named his fear part BOO! And BOO! was hollering in his ear, “This is stupid! Get out of here! This place is dangerous!”
So, the doc went back up to his office after 15 seconds.
But he was determined. The next day he came back down and lasted 20 seconds. Then the next day , a little longer. He did this every day for a couple of weeks until he got to about the ten-minute mark and then discovered, “These crowds no longer triggered fear; they trigger boredom.”
He wasn’t done. The next stage of this gradual exposure therapy was to walk across the lobby and stand near the glass window and look at the pedestrians outside on the busy sidewalk.
His heart was racing, “Boo!” was shouting at him. And again, he only lasted about 15 seconds.
But he came back the next day and stayed for 20 seconds. And then longer and longer. He was habituating himself to the crowds. Again, at about the ten-minute mark he realized, “These crowds no longer trigger fear; standing here is a waste of time.”
He said, “I think I’m ready to stand on the busy sidewalk. As I walked to the revolving door, Boo was screaming in my ear, “Don’t do it! This is bad! It’s stupid! Those people are going to think you’re crazy!”
And the doc said to Boo, “SHUT UP! You told me the lobby was going to be a catastrophe, and it wasn’t. You told me standing near this glass window was dangerous and it wasn’t. I’m going out on that sidewalk and you can’t stop me.” His two victories gave him courage.
He walked through the revolving door and planted himself on the busy sidewalk, which, again, is a huge deal for someone with social anxiety. Pedestrians had to navigate around him. It was hard at first—stiff muscles, rapid breathing. But he was determined NOT to leave.
At the five-minute mark something amazing happened. He actually felt his anxiety drain away and he said to himself, “That actually was not so hard.”
I referred to this as “gradual exposure therapy.” You can GOOGLE this and watch people overcome all sorts of fears. It’s fascinating to watch.
I know facing fears works; I used it to overcome my fear of heights.
Let me tell you a couple of stories.
But when our kids were little we took them to the Puyallup Fair and I rode a Ferris Wheel. I’m embarrassed to admit, I was terrified! When I got off that ride I was relieved but also irritated with myself, “Where did THAT come from?”
Sometime later I attended an event in the Space Needle. If you’ve been there you know the elevator is on the outside and it’s made of glass. Riding the elevator I couldn’t look out the window. I was avoiding! Inside the Space Needle I huddled near the center and there was no way I was going to walk near the edge. I was 600 feet in the air!
A while after that I was on the 30th floor of a high-rise office building in Seattle attending a workshop. At break time they opened the sliding glass doors, so the attendees could walk out on the balcony and look over the edge. I couldn’t do it! My feet turned to cement.
This was not a debilitating fear because there aren’t a lot of sky scrapers in Ferndale.
But this story has a happy ending. In 2013 I faced my fear. I was visiting my home state of NY and was wandering around downtown Manhattan among the sky scrapers. I said to myself, “Today I’m going to face my fear and go to the top of one of these sky scrapers and look over the edge.” I was by myself and had all day.
I found myself standing at the foot of Rockefeller Center. It was so tall I couldn’t even see the top. Just standing there made my heart pound. But I was determined to face my fear and get to the top of the building.
My plan was to go slow, visit the first floor, look over, come down. Second floor, look over the edge come back down, and work my way to the top. That plan flopped when I learned they don’t let tourists get off on each floor. So, I bought the express ticket from the ground floor and went all the way to the observation deck.
Well, I’m happy to report, I did it successfully. I looked over the edge. And I don’t mind telling you, that was a proud moment for me.
When I was on the observation deck I made a 3 ½ minute video of me looking over the edge and I want to show it to you.
If you have issues with heights, you have no complaint from me. I get that. But let me reassure you. You’re safe in this room. You’re only two feet off the ground. I made it back safe and sound. There’s nothing scary in this film, if you don’t count my facial expressions. If you’re tempted to close your eyes and look away I won’t think less of you. But here’s a gentle challenge: keep your eyes on the screen and if your muscles tense up, go limp noodle. Remember, you’re the boss of your muscles.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath….and (to the sound booth person), “Hit the play button.”
Anxiety reduction TIP NUMBER FIVE is “TRUST.” The opposite of fear is not limp noodle; it’s trust.
In an audience this size there may be some here who’ve never been in a church before or who’ve never attended a meeting run by Christians before. If that’s so, it’s great, we’re glad you’re here.
Something you should know: followers of Jesus take his words very seriously. Even though he spoke a long time ago, he had a lot to say about reducing fear, anxiety, and worry. I’d like to recite for you a portion of his famous Sermon on the Mount where he encouraged his listeners—and us—to put our trust in God. He said this.
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?
Look at the birds of the air;
They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than birds? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes?
See how the lilies of the field grow.
They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the plants of the field, which are here today and gone tomorrow, will he not much more clothe you—oh you of little faith?
“So, do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
Others run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I can think of no better source of inspiration to trust God than these two paragraphs of Jesus in the New Testament, Matthew chapter six.
Okay, time for review. The next time you feel anxious…
1. Limp Noodle
3. Name it and talk back to it
4. Face your fears
I received the invitation to speak here last July which means I’ve been waiting 6 months for this moment:
I want to give you a free gift (NOTE TO READERS: Amazon offer expired, sorry. e-Book available for $2.99 by clicking here):
a 100-page booklet with cartoons called YIKES! 48 common fears; 48 uncommon cures. It’s free on Amazon for the next 2 days only. You’ll need the Kindle Reader APP on your phone or tablet which is also free. If nothing else, if you scroll through those 48 fears you may identify with, say, three of them. Do you know what that means? It means you don’t have 45 fears! YAY!
One final resource for you.
A Collide “NEXT STEPS CLASS” where I’ll be discussing how anxiety affects families.
The Teeter Totter Family: How Anxiety Throws Everybody Off Balance
- February 13, 2017 6:30 PM
- Cornwall Church
- Find info on www.WeCollide.com web site