You’re getting ready for a peaceful night sleep and you see something moving on the floor next you’re your bed. A spider! You call your braver half to kill it. Your hero jumps into action. The shoe slams down on the hardwood. Thank goodness!
And then you see the spider scurry under the bed.
NOOO! You can’t sleep in the bed now. Your poor, aiming hero tries to convince you that it’s a small spider who is more afraid of you, but you don’t see it that way. “That spider was HUGE! What if he crawls on me when I’m asleep? What if he crawls in my mouth?” Your partner thinks you’re overreaching and climbs under the covers. “Come on. It’s just a little spider.” You’re horrified! “I’m not sleeping in there! Aren’t you afraid he’s going to bite you?” “No.”
And with that, your knight in shining armor turns in for the night, while you sleep on the couch.
Why is it that two people can experience the same event, but react so differently?
It’s difficult to remain calm when your imagination is running wild with possibilities. Even if you think your thoughts are irrational, you may be unable to control them. You can’t help but feel distressed at the thought of having a spider under your bed. Possibility and probability are confused as it seems likely the spider will crawl into your mouth; perception is distorted as it feels like the spider is huge; and danger is exaggerated as the spider is likely to be deadly. Nagging, anxious thoughts can paralyze us with fear and cause us to avoid, while others who don’t experience those thoughts seem to carry on with their day, or night, without reacting. This is true for any trigger, not just spiders: elevators, driving, tall buildings, etc.
What’s the most effective treatment for anxiety?
If you’ve ever researched treating your anxiety, you know that the term “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)” comes up a lot.
CBT is a therapy model that focuses on our cognition, or the way we think, and our behaviors, or the way we act. The main concept behind CBT is that our thoughts about a situation (ie, the “huge” spider) effect how we feel (afraid and anxious) and how we behave (ie, avoiding the bed). We tend to assign meanings to specific situations and the things that happen in our lives (spiders are big, dangerous, and scary). So, it’s not the actual situation causing our anxiety, but the meanings – accurate or not.
In our example, meanings have been assigned to spiders – it isn’t the actual spider causing the anxiety, it’s the meaning assigned to the spider. And, when you have anxiety, you give your thoughts a lot of meaning, and thus, a lot of power.
The more irrational meanings are attached to a situation, the more anxiety provoking that situation becomes. CBT aims to help you overcome fears by correcting your irrational thoughts and changing your behaviors (decreasing avoidance). By acquiring a certain mindset, you can learn to approach anxious situations differently and learn to tolerate the anxiety. The more you put yourself in an anxiety provoking, uncomfortable situations, the more comfortable you become with it. Sounds counterintuitive, but it works. With the help of a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, you can conquer your anxiety!