The Anxiety Equation

Antoine Dautry  on unsplash

Antoine Dautry on unsplash

OH YES, there is an equation for anxiety. Really. It is used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and you don’t have to be a mathematician to understand it.

The equation is as follows:

Anxiety = Estimation of danger/Estimation of coping skills

Simply put, anxiety occurs when either the danger of the situation outweighs the number of appropriate coping skills you have OR (and this is thought to be more likely) anxiety occurs when there is an overestimation of the danger of a situation and an underestimation of your ability to cope.

Why does overestimation occur?

In my previous posts (see Why Do I Feel So Bad? An Introduction to The Fight-or-Flight Response6 Ways to Switch Off The Fight-or-Flight Response) I discussed how your brain doesn’t know the difference between real life-and-death threats and the ones that trigger your insecurities. Your brain treats both of these the same. It prepares you to run or fight for your life whether you have seen a tiger at your door or a picture of your ex looking happy on Instagram. I realise the latter is pretty damn terrible however it is not (in itself) a life-threatening incident (even if they do look outrageously happy!).

Your brain overreacts to non-life-threatening situations. We are therefore experts at overestimating danger.

Additionally, when our brain triggers the fight-or-flight response we lose the ability to reason in a calm and effective manner. Your frontal lobes are temporarily offline and engaged solely in the fight-or-flight response. Instead of helping you gain perspective your brain generates multiple possible (usually terrible) outcomes and rehashes similar negative memories from the past, thinking that it is helping you. This explains why we only need one single fear-based thought before we find ourselves suddenly falling head first down a thought-based rabbit hole of the worst possible kind, without the ability to step away and reassess the situation.

Managing overestimation

  1. Be kind to yourself. When you feel anxious and your brain is spiralling out of control tell yourself it’s ok, you are doing your best. Your brain just really wants you to pay attention to the thing in your mind. You are not doing something wrong.
  2. Write down the thing that has happened and the fear thought that came with it.
  3. Notice if you have had this fear thought before.
  4. Write down what you think is going to happen.
  5. Write down the evidence for that outcome.
  6. Write down the evidence against that outcome (what suggests it probably won’t be as bad as your brain says it will be). Think back to recent times when this fear thought has happened, was the outcome actually as bad as you feared? You can ask others for help as it may be hard to generate the ‘against’ information the first few times you do this.  
  7. Based on the (for and against) evidence, write out a new more likely outcome.
  8. If you feel that the outcome is still as threatening, think about how you will cope if that outcome does really occur, who would help you in that situation and whether it will matter in 5 years time.

Underestimation of coping skills

I rarely meet people who are good at self-soothing, have a full toolkit of coping skills or feel totally convinced of their ability in either of these areas! I don’t mean this judgmentally. I mean that we are not really raised with these skills.

At school, academic achievement, athletic skills and being popular are revered. In the media, success in terms of financial achievement and looks are worshipped. All this teaches you to work harder and harder whatever the cost. This is the antithesis of teaching you how to cope. It instead pushes us to our limits and tells us we shouldn’t ask for help. Because of this, there is a constant danger of failing, triggering our fight-or-flight whenever we get near that point.

Also, control is the coping skill commonly promoted these days. I meet lots of people that have succeeded in mastering this strategy. This works in the short term as controlling every aspect of your environment and daily schedule makes you feel like there can be no potential threat. The problem is, the world is unpredictable. You simply can’t be in control of every aspect of your life. It just doesn’t work like that. This means that suddenly (and out of the blue) this coping strategy can become totally useless and the anxiety ramps up very, very quickly.

So… it is best to have a range of coping skills. One that has you covered for all occasions.

Creating a coping skills toolkit

It is important to note that some coping skills will work for one person and not for another. Here is a broad list of skills that can be trialled and added to your personal coping toolkit, and that I wish was compulsory teaching in childhood.

  1. List activities that have helped soothe you in the past.
  2. Learn breathing exercises and relaxation exercises as if they are going out of fashion. See 2 Foolproof Ways to Relax for specific instructions. I know, I know, I go on about these. They are the frontline treatment for anxiety. You can use them to calm the body and the mind. Once you are good at these and know you have them at hand you the balance of the equation will tip in your favour.
  3. Read 6 Ways to Switch Off The Fight-or-Flight Response and practice the steps, particularly mindfulness!
  4. Create coping statements. At first, write them down. Your brain won’t let you believe them immediately so read them off the paper. These could include: “I have coped with situations like this before and I survived”, “Anxiety feels really terrible but it is just that, anxiety, I am not in danger”, “I can find someone to help me manage part of this”, “I can cope”, “Even if this doesn’t go well I am still good enough”. Over time these statements will become second nature and you will start to believe them.
  5. Learn self-compassion. Notice when you are being self-critical. Think about what you would say to a friend if they were in your situation. Say that to yourself instead.
  6. Learn to problem solve properly and on paper. Problem-solving when distressed is hard. Practice this when calm so that you can create a balanced plan of how to proceed in the face of anxiety (rather than going with the first disaster outcome that comes to mind). I will write a separate post about this (follow me for updates).
  7. Talk to someone. Do you know who to call when you are in need? Is it a friend, a coach, a mentor, a therapist? Go to them, or schedule a time to talk.
  8. Step away from the situation momentarily. For example, if this is an ongoing issue, find something you can do that totally distracts you from the situation for short periods. Is there something you know grounds you or grabs your attention? People sometimes use crosswords, take a bath, listen to loud or soothing music, call a friend who you know makes you laugh.
  9. Schedule worry time. This may sound a bit odd but it can be so useful. Rather than allowing the fear thoughts to spill out all day, set a specific time each day to worry all your worry thoughts, write them down. Then stop when the time is up. When the worries start you can tell yourself you will properly think about this at 4pm for 15 minutes during worry time.
  10. PRACTICE MINDFULNESS. Yes I realise I have already said this but the evidence for the positive effects of mindfulness on anxiety is just too strong for me to gloss over this. Mindfulness gives you the power to be in the present moment. To ground yourself firmly in the present. It is the ultimate coping skill (when fighting or running for your life is not appropriate).

That’s it

This is just an outline of the anxiety equation and some steps you can take to tip the balance back in your favour. The aim is to create a set of coping skills that means you can cope no matter the danger (assuming there isn’t an actual tiger at your door). I realise that this is easier said than done but trial the steps above and I promise you have a good starting point. Have a go and let me know what you think. :)

If you are really struggling with anxiety seek professional help. There are lots of great, kind and welcoming therapists out there. There is also a lot of evidence showing how effective therapy is for anxiety. So, it really is worth it. 

Also, you can contact me if you have questions, or even for therapy!

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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.

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Dr Soph