Points for anxiety
I have an intermittently crippling anxiety disorder, so I recently started trying a new kind of therapy to mitigate it. I’ve been finding sufficiently great so far that even if it doesn’t work long term I will probably think it was worth it. So I’ll tell you about it.
It is based on Reid Wilson’s ideas, I think as described in his book, though I haven’t read it and most of my understanding comes from my therapist, my friend who also does this, and a set of humorous videos on Reid Wilson’s website.
Here is the practice, as I practice it:
If I’m anxious:
- Notice that I am anxious
- ‘Connect with my outcome picture’. Which is to say, imagine a really good version of my life. (Usually focusing on details that parallel currently problematic ones. For instance, if I was distracted by the sense of not being able to breathe while hanging out with a friend, I might imagine a version of my life where I hang out with my friends attentively while confidently brushing off all manner of chest sensations, perhaps in the context of a life more broadly full of confidence and attention on things that matter.)
- Be excited for the current bout of anxiety as an opportunity to exercise skills at living in the ‘outcome picture’ version of life in spite of anxiety. This involves having redrawn the goal as living well even in the context of anxiety rather than not being anxious. It also involves thinking of the route to this goal as developing a skill or strength via repeated practice, similar to learning a language or becoming good at bench press. Then because that practice requires a series of anxiety-filled contexts, you are naturally excited if an occasion comes up. For example, instead of aiming to never have panic attacks while getting lunch with someone, you are trying to become the kind of person who can keep their attention on the finer points of an argument in spite of maybe feeling like they can’t breathe that well. This is only going to happen via a number of practice occasions with arguments and breathing difficulties. So if one of these comes up, you are pumped.
- Go back to what I was doing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in a non-anxious way even, just treating it as practice.
- Get a point.
If I get ten points, I get a cookie.
I think the clear rules for getting a point, and the dispersal of cookies, are both crucial for my own success with this, though my impression is that they are not included in the classic versions.
Things I like or think might be good about this:
- Imagining how you want things to be ten or twenty times a day is pretty inspiring in general, anxiety aside. (Anxiety reduction techniques that involve doing something virtuous every time you are anxious seem good in general, if you can make them work. I used to play DDR whenever I was anxious, and I got heaps of exercise and very good at DDR.)
- If you can get genuinely excited for being anxious, that alone seems to undermine some of its force.
- Feeling like anxiety is the thing that is meant to happen, that is a key part of the path to your goal (or at least the path to a point), rather than a sign of things going wrong, also makes it easier to deal with.
- Empirically it seems to just make me happy somehow. It might be all the imagining my outcome picture.