Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Anxiety: The Power of Thoughts and Words


Anxiety: The Power of Thoughts and Words


"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me."  Mothers traditionally give this advice to their children hoping that they will learn to cope with childhood bullies by ignoring their taunts. But, guess what, it never works. Language does program our nervous system and our nervous system programs our feelings and behavior. Our ability to use language distinguishes us from the animal world, for better or worse. Zebras may not get ulcers, but they also don't write books or create symphonies. This article will talk about ways in which our language affects anxiety. From ordinary worry and stress to certifiable anxiety disorders, worry and anxiety can create havoc in our minds and bodies. In this article I'll be using fear of public speaking as an example of one of our most common anxieties.


Your body’s fight-or-flight stress response system actually makes no distinction between your worries, thoughts and feelings about a problem and the problem itself. If you have stage fright, your heart starts pounding and your stomach starts churning just thinking about walking up to the podium in the same way your body and mind respond when you actually have to begin a speech. In fact, the imagined fear may be more terrifying than the actual event. Why is that? Although anxiety is a physical response, it does not take place without internal representations of the feared possible event.  Stage fright usually consists of thoughts about eventualities such as tripping on the stage, losing your notes, people laughing at you, feelings of embarrassment and humiliation, thoughts that you are a fool or a failure, and so forth. Your fears usually include the thought, "I can't..."; in this case, "I can't talk in public."


Understanding the nature of worry leads us to some strategies for coping with these fears.  Worry thoughts usually focus on the future, on imagined dangers which have not yet occurred. It's difficult to take action against a fantasy. Anxious thinking also includes an overestimation of potential risks and "tunnel vision" focusing on imagined disasters. The person with stage fright will be imagining an audience staring at them, perhaps with hostility or derision, rarely envisioning the rest of the audience polite and appreciative.  Worry generates a system of beliefs in which the individual is not in control and failure is to be expected. Finally, anxiety leads to the expectation that these imagined dangers can be avoided only if escape is possible. Anxiety is then driven by the need to escape the feared consequences, with the individual feeling out of control.


One of your first approaches, then, will be to interrupt the worry thought cycle and replace it with more realistic problem-solving alternatives.  Remember that you just can't stop thinking about something. Just try not thinking about stage fright. As soon as you tell yourself to stop, you'll be seeing yourself losing your place in the speech or whatever your imagined worst-case scenario would be in this situation. But you can interrupt the anxious thoughts with something like: "Hey wait," or "I'm just thinking."  Then you can guide your thinking with more realistic coping statements such as: "Relax. The world's not coming to an end." "I'm going to be all right. It's just a little speech". "I don't have to be perfect. I can let myself be human." I can take my time with this." "I can ride this through." "I know I feel better once I'm actually in the situation." "This is just anxiety. I'm not going to let it get to me."  I love the simple calming phrase, "So what."  After successfully treating a client with a panic attack disorder, during the last session I asked her what had been the most influential advice I had offered. Smiling broadly she commented that the best advice was to say "So what" to her panic!


Once the worry is interrupted and replaced with calming thoughts, the next strategy will be to focus on realistic coping strategies to deal with the problem; for example, practicing a speech in front of a mirror accompanied by positive expectations of success, imagining most of the audience appreciative and responsive.  Replace imagined fears with more realistic probabilities. Most audiences are in fact polite and even compassionate to nervous speakers. This could be compared to a situation with a realistic high probability of disaster such as singing in front of an audience when you are tone deaf.  Labeling yourself as a future "failure" or telling yourself that you "can't" will be replaced by an action plan that you can achieve.  You will feel in control rather than out of control. Most important, you will not be succumbing to the need to escape the feared situation. Every time you avoid a problem, your escape strategies are reinforced and the fear is magnified. When you actually give a talk in public, your level of success is far higher than your imagined disaster. Programs such as Toastmasters are very effective in helping people actually cope with stage fright.


Whatever your worry, you can use the ideas outlined in this article to begin changing your thoughts, labels and expectations from fear and avoidance toward success. And you will continue outsmarting our old fiend, the Stress Monster!