Most people, who have more anxiety than they want, work hard to rid themselves of their anxiety. They try relaxation training, meditation, medication, and more, all in a desperate attempt to conquer uncomfortable, distressing feelings. And who can blame them? After all, isn’t that the goal of therapy—to rid yourself of anxiety, uncertainty, doubts, and discomfort once and for all? Well, yes and no. Of course most therapists would love for you to be able to feel calm, relaxed, and peaceful all of the time. However, that goal isn’t possible for anybody. Life is full of unpredictable, often random, dangers, hassles, and perils. Therefore, if you have the goal of eliminating these things, you will almost certainly fail.
I’m pretty sure that I came out of the womb as a cognitive behavioral therapist. Well, maybe a behavioral therapist—I guess I wasn’t using language those first few months. But, I’ve always been acutely aware of how rewards, lack of rewards, and thinking all interact and influence feelings and behavior. In my early training, I considered myself a radical behaviorist. I still do pretty much. I believe that the words we use and the thoughts we think can be considered verbal behavior. But, those beliefs are much more complex than what I wish to discuss today.
The way you think about things can affect the way you feel. That’s a basic premise of cognitive therapy. Here’s an example. One morning you get to work and realize that you left your iPad at home. You have these thoughts: “Oh no, I forgot my iPad. I’ll never be able to get any work done today. I don’t even have my calendar. I know I have some appointments but I don’t remember when. This is terrible. If my boss finds out about this, he might fire me.” Well, after that thought you might be pretty anxious. On the other hand, what if you have these thoughts? “Oh no, I forgot my iPad. What an idiot I am. How can I be so stupid? I should have checked to see that I had everything before I left. Why do I always have to be so stupid?” Having those thoughts might lead to feeling pretty depressed.
So, Laura responded to my blog on Six Reasons for Not Treating Your Anxiety or OCD with one of her own blogs that may have helped you rethink your “treatment interfering beliefs” in a more productive way. If so, you’re ready to move ahead, right? Well, not quite. I think it’s also wise to take one more important step. Specifically, I’d like you first to consider accepting where you’re at, problems and all. That’s right; evaluate yourself as acceptable and OK as you are. Realize that you didn’t ask to have problems with anxiety and OCD. Rather, you have these problems for lots of good reasons. You may have had genes that tilted you in this direction. Or perhaps you experienced one or more traumas. Maybe your parents were overly critical and overbearing. On the other hand, maybe they couldn’t provide the structure you needed as a child. Perhaps you grew up in an unsafe neighborhood. People acquire anxiety and OCD for these reasons and many more. They pretty much never become anxious because they “wanted” to have these problems. Yet, many clients judge and evaluate themselves very harshly just because they have some problems that they didn’t ask for in the first place. They see themselves as weak, incompetent, and horribly flawed. Thus, they tell themselves that they absolutely MUST overcome their problems. In addition, they should do so quickly and completely.
A couple of days ago, Chuck wrote about why some people either believe they can’t get better or decide not to get treatment for their anxiety or OCD. Some readers had other ideas like having no money or not having access to good cognitive behavioral therapy. Here are six ideas for overcoming such obstacles to change: Money. Many people lack the financial resources for getting help. Some people can’t afford therapy at all, others have medical insurance that doesn’t cover mental health in a comprehensive way. Try contacting the nearest college or university. Most colleges have psychology clinics that have well supervised upper level students or graduate students work with clients in order to gain experience. Costs for such services are often modest and most use a sliding scale. Community mental health agencies also use sliding scales to charge for services.
You read blogs all of the time exhorting you to get treatment for anxiety, OCD, and other emotional problems. But have you heeded that advice and gotten treatment? For many people, the answer is that they haven’t. You might wonder why that would be the case. After all, if you have a problem, you should venture out and do something about it, right? I’d like to suggest that if you’ve had significant problems with anxiety or OCD, yet avoided getting treatment for years, you’ve probably done so for some pretty good reasons. And it makes more sense to take a look at your reasons for not seeking treatment than to beat yourself up for not having done something about your problem. There are six major reasons or beliefs we’ve heard people give for avoiding treatment. See if any of these apply to you:
Human beings are graced with having minds that can use language and thoughts to learn from the past and anticipate future events. How glorious! We can actually manage to read about various threats, calamities, and hazards—and sometimes actually prevent them from happening or minimize their effects when they do. Therefore, we can substantially reduce a variety of risks by learning to drive the speed limit, use seat belts, avoid excessive sun exposure, avoid known toxins, engage in regular exercise, and eat healthy. All of these things are great to do. Unfortunately, humans also have a habit of taking things too far. We exaggerate our minds’ ability to predict the future and prevent what we fear from happening. For example, some people refuse to consider locating to the southwest (including our lovely part of the country New Mexico) because they are afraid of snakes. Well in the 25 years of my residency, I’ve only seen two snakes and I walk or jog quite frequently. The chances of actually getting bit by a snake are extremely unlikely—much less than getting hit by a car or having a heart attack.
As we approach another New Year, people are writing and talking about the tradition of New Year’s Resolutions. A couple of days ago Chuck wrote a blog about questions you should ask yourself before making a list of resolutions. He promised that I would write a blog about how to go about making your resolutions. Well, I could do that. For example, be specific and concrete. Don’t say you are going to support world peace—instead, resolve to contribute something to UNICEF, the United Nations fund to help children around the world. And don’t go overboard—like stating that you are planning on working out 5 times a week every week. What happens when you get a bad cold or the flu? You mess up and then your resolution becomes unobtainable. Many people give up entirely when they experience a small lapse. Instead, make your goal more reasonable such as “I will work out most weeks of the year.”
Now is the time that most people start thinking about what resolutions they want to make for the New Year. But before you undertake that task, you’d be well advised to reflect back on this past year first. You can start by looking at last year’s list of resolutions and reflecting on how things went. Even if you don’t have such a list, you can still ask yourself some questions such as:
Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list and checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice. This popular Christmas song is really about how we encourage children to have self-control or engage in moral behavior. The song lets kids know that someone (could be a parent, big brother, the neighbors, the police, a spiritual figure, or Santa Claus) is watching what they are doing. And there will be consequences for their actions—presents for those “good” or “nice” kids and nothing or worse for those who were naughty. Philosophers have grappled with the reasons people behave the way they do for centuries. What motivates saints and sinners? Do people behave because they want to be good (nice) or because they don’t want to be punished? Well, that depends.