When anxious predictions run amok!

Anxiety is no stranger to anyone. And having anxious thoughts is a natural response to anxious situations. Sometimes, the anxiety helps us to avoid danger and other times we can push through our anxiety to do something even if we are nervous. However, the problem is when our anxious thoughts stop us from engaging with the world and prevent us from doing something we want/need to do (i.e., becomes an anxiety disorder). For example, Suzy might want to reach out to her friend Natalie to spend time together (SITUATION). However, when considering this idea, she thinks to herself “Natalie will be annoyed that I reached out and will reject me(THOUGHT). This leads to her feeling nervous (EMOTION) and decide to not reach out (ACTION). This pattern can lead to avoiding something that could be beneficial for us (and others), such as making an appointment, applying for a job, learning a new skill, among many others.

When we let our anxious thoughts prevent us from engaging with the world, there are three main issues:

1. We maintain the anxiety by avoiding the anxious situation

2. We never learn whether our prediction was true or not

3. And even if our negative prediction happens, we don’t learn if we can cope with the worst-case scenario

Phone calls are sometimes a lot scarier than this person makes it look!

Why are behavioural experiments helpful?

A behavioural experiment is essentially a way for us to be a curious scientist and test whether our predictions are true or not. In this way, we create emotional distance from a scary situation and simply observe what happens when we engage in a behaviour in spite of how we feel. The steps for doing a behavioural experiment are below:

1. Think about a situation that scares you (“making a phone call to set up a dentist appointment”).

2. Write down what you think will happen (“I will have no idea what to say and I will look like an idiot”).

3. Engage in the activity!

4. Write down what actually happened (“I wasn’t sure what to expect but the receptionist was able to guide me. I ended up being able to make the appointment without too many stutters”).

5. If the prediction did come true, write down how you coped (“I felt somewhat bad at first. I took a walk and felt a bit better.”)

6. Write down lessons learned (“It wasn’t as bad as I thought, I managed to get through the call okay and next time I won’t feel as afraid!”)

As you can see, behavioural experiments are a great way to get lived experience whether your negative predictions are likely to be true. And perhaps more importantly, it’s a fantastic strategy to see just how resilient you can be in coping with situations even if the negative prediction ended up being true. Beyond these steps, you can also track your anxiety levels before and after engaging in the activity to see if these experiments are helping. For example, your level of anxiety before making the call was 80/100, but perhaps it dropped down to 50/100 by the end of it.

Obtaining your PhD through behavioural experiments

And that’s it!

You now have a PhD in being a curious scientist and behavioural experiments are your primary tools to challenge your anxious thoughts. Try out a few today! You can even start with something that is lower on your anxiety spectrum , such as ordering food from a new place or making a call. If the anxiety is making it a bit too hard to conduct the experiment, then please check out some of the relaxation strategies I wrote on another post. Check it out HERE!

Let us know in the comments some behavioural experiments you’ve been trying out and how that worked for you!

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Best wishes,