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Looking Beyond Anxiety

When anxiety strikes, it may feel natural to get caught up in the “what ifs” of the future. Unfortunately, those “what ifs” can also drive you to eat or distract yourself with obsessing about food and weight. Rather than abuse food to deal with your angst, why not learn an easy technique called leap-frogging that will calm you down and help you sail through difficult circumstances which ordinarily might upset you.

Generally, when you’re anxious, it’s because you’re concentrating on the event—a job interview, a visit from a difficult relative, or an upcoming colonoscopy. The more you think about the situation, the more anxious you get. You engage in this imagining or event rehearsal in an attempt to feel better, but end up feeling worse. That’s because you’re putting energy into the wrong aspect of the future.

Instead of focusing on the event, which escalates anxiety, visualize how you’re going to feel after it—generally, relieved or even proud. Let’s look at how you might apply this technique to the above examples. First, the job interview. Your instinct may be to worry about getting there on time, how you’ll come across, whether you’ll have the right responses, etc. Second, a visit from a difficult relative. You’ll probably fixate on whether you’ll get along, how you’re going to keep them entertained, finding time for yourself, and keeping your sanity. Third, a colonoscopy. You might zero in on the awful prep, potential anesthesia mistakes, or what the doc might find. In each instance, where you’re focusing your energy is certain to ratchet up your anxiety and keep it there.

Instead, leap-frog over the job interview, the visit from your relative, or your colonoscopy and imagine yourself after it. Picture yourself feeling relief after they’re over, and when I say picture, I mean ground yourself in visualizing the details of a positive aftermath. You’re getting into your car after the job interview, thrilled that it’s over. You’re waving goodbye to your difficult relative and feeling good for having made the effort to see them. You’re home post-colonoscopy feeling proud you got through it and took care of business, and relieved not to have to think of having another one for several years.

No matter what the reality or outcome of the event is, the idea is to decrease anxiety about it in the present. Repeat, what happens during or after the event is not relevant to regulating your anxiety beforehand. If you’re going to imagine something, it might as well be positive feelings which will relax you. Remember, you can’t change or control the future, only the present.