About this post: Anxiety grows through a fight or flight response. Recognizing that response is the first step in catching, checking, then changing unhelpful thoughts.
Anxiety tricks your brain.
It thrives through the more primitive part of your brain called the amygdala, the part that rings an alarm that signals a cascade of physical and emotional events. It’s a primitive response that has to do with fight or flight.
Our ancestors needed this system because they lived in a dangerous world where if you saw a wild animal, you needed to sound an internal alarm and get each part of your body to go into “fight or flight” mode. Your heart races to get blood to your legs, your gut shuts down to save resources for fleeing, and your arousal system revs up so you can be hyper-aware of your body and surroundings. Worries can set off this same alarm system, except that it’s not so helpful when we don’t actually need to fight or flee. But, we have the power to turn off the alarm.
First, we have to recognize that it’s the anxiety alarm going off. This means being aware that you’re anxious. Everyone has a distinct “tell,” something that happens each time anxiety swells up. Notice what happens in your body the next time you feel anxious, and take some notes so you engrain them in your memory. For some people, it may be butterflies in their stomach – for others, a tightness in their chests. It may be either a looping of the same thought over and over in their minds or a series of catastrophizing thoughts. Then each time you notice that physical feeling or type of thought, you tell yourself that you are experiencing anxiety. The first step in dealing with it is the labelling it for what it is.
Next, you start the self-talk. “This is just my anxiety. It’s happened before, and this is exactly how it makes my body feel when it comes up. Because I know it’s anxiety, I know my brain is getting tricked right now, so I’m not going to give my thoughts as much credit as I would at other times.” Just doing this part can bring the anxiety down a few notches.
As a final step, you can even challenge the specific thoughts and replace them with alternative thoughts. (We’ll go over some techniques for challenging the thoughts in another post.)
An easy way to remember the three steps of this strategy is to remember the three C’s- catch it, check it, change it. “Catch it” is noticing that you’re anxious. “Check it” is the self-talk of telling yourself that your thoughts may not be entirely accurate in that moment. “Change it” is actively examining and changing your thoughts.
Just like anything else in life, this is not a quick fix, but one that does work over time. At first, maybe you notice a 15% decrease in your anxiety, but if you stay with the strategy, you’ll be able to dim down the anxiety more and more. The goal is not necessarily to completely get rid of the anxiety because, for many people, that’s not realistic – but what you can do is gain control over it, recognize it early on, and act on attacking it.
Written by Dr. Tejal Kaur, founder and medical director of graymatters
This post is part of a series called:
Tricks of the (Mental Health) Trade
This series is about educating yourself about your mind and body, so that you can live a healthy life. At graymatters, we want you to be the expert at caring for your health – and for us, that means coaching and educating you so that you can improve your mental health on your own in the ways that feel right to you. But when you do want to work with us directly, we’re here to help!