By Drew Dyrssen
If you answered “Yes!” to that question, you are not alone. In fact, you are part of the majority.
Rates of anxiety and depression among U.S. adults were about 4 times higher between April 2020 and August 2021 than they were in 2019. Some of the sharpest increases were among males, Asian Americans, young adults, and parents with children in the home, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even without a pandemic, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million of adults in the United States age 18 and older. Although anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
Anxiety, in short, is a disconnect between your mind and body. Your mind is worrying about something in the past or future (like an exam). Your body, however, does not have the capability to recognize past or future; it can only live in the here and now. This causes your body to have a set of physical reactions as it is preparing to fight, run, or freeze.
Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. It is healthy for the mind and body to experience some anxiety. However, anxiety becomes a more serious issue when it begins to interfere with your daily life, becomes excessive, is unmanageable, or leads to panic attacks. Professionally speaking, you could be diagnosed with anxiety if you experience symptoms for six consecutive weeks. Instead of waiting for those weeks to pass, you can take steps to reduce your anxiety now.
Here are some useful (and maybe even a little goofy) scientifically supported techniques you can use when you’re experiencing anxiety.
1. Give your mind a name. If you give your mind a name, it makes it easier to disagree with and move on to a more helpful thought. The average human has 60,000-80,000 thoughts every day. That’s a ton! How many of those thoughts are actually useful for you? Maybe a small handful each day? Do yourself a favor and name your mind. Mine is named Jeff. We are friends. Jeff gives me quite a few strange thoughts, but I can respectfully disagree with him.
2. Go to your “one-stop” shopping store. Well, you don’t have to physically go there, but imagine that your mind is like that store where there are tons of items. (Your items are your thoughts.) Some items in the store are useful. Some are worthless to you. Some you never even knew existed! Do you go into the store planning to buy everything in the store? No way! Your mind works the same way. As you are shopping around the aisles of your thoughts, you get to choose what you buy and what you leave on the shelf!
3. Repeat it. Created by psychologist Edward Titchener, this little trick shows people how a word loses its meaning when repeated over and over and over. If you want to give it a try, take the word “milk.” Take a moment and think of a nice, cold glass of milk. Then repeat the word “milk” out loud for 30 seconds. You’ll notice that it starts to lose meaning and just becomes a weird sound that’s hard to say. Try doing 30 seconds of “failure” or “loser” or “ugly” the next time a thought like that causes you anxiety or pain.
4. Sing the thought or say it in a funny voice. I suggest using “Happy Birthday” as the melody to that anxious thought you’re experiencing, and maybe your favorite cartoon character’s voice. I know, I know, it sounds strange. I promise you, though, this is based on hundreds of scientific studies!
These are just a handful of skills that are a portion of Cognitive Defusion. Defusion is part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which was created and researched by Dr. Steven Hayes. I hope they are helpful for you!
To learn more about Cognitive Defusion, you can watch Dr. Hayes speak about it during his TedTalk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnSHpBRLJrQ.
Post published January 2020 and updated January 2022.