Mental Health Tune Up for TeensMental Health Tune Up for Teens: Simple Ways to Defeat

Yes, we are complicated beings, but sometimes, we can deflate problems that seem enormous with a couple of simple questions. In a report featured in the Scientific American, Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen offers a unique perspective on anxiety- what if you could divide and conquer an overwhelming fear? What if you could cut it in half, and then ask those halves a question or two that would reduce the size of the monster that looms in your mind? By demonstrating two of the most common beliefs that trigger our anxieties, Dr. Hendriksen offers a method to reduce the size of a major nightmare to a minor worry.

Talking to Yourself

We all talk to ourselves. When we say the same things over and over, we can create stories that begin to seem real. Want to blame a problem on someone else? Just keep saying over and over that the problem is one person’s fault, and sure enough, in no time at all you will grow to believe this person is responsible for creating the crisis that overwhelms you. Fortunately, a different type of self-talk can work another way.

Hendriksen suggests that we need to break our anxiety down to two simple belief patterns that based on our typical unconscious thoughts. Then we must question them. In the Scientific American, Hendriksen writes:

“Belief #1: The worst-case scenario is sure to happen.

You probably know someone who can find the silver lining in any bad event: someone dear to them dies and they are thankful the suffering has ended, or they get fired but relish the chance at a fresh start. You probably also know someone who will complain about anything: the beach was too sandy, the sangria too fruity. And finally, you probably also know (or are) someone who can think of the worst-case scenario in any situation. You have a headache? What if it’s a brain tumor?  There’s traffic? Your boss is sure to notice when you walk in late. You’re going to a resort in Cancun for a week? Don’t get ice in that sangria or you’ll be sick the whole time!”

This type of thinking shows how creative our anxiety can be, Hendriksen points out. We may only be facing a small challenge, but we manage to build it up in our minds until it becomes a giant obstacle. Something too big to confront. At times, this ability to intensify fear can serve a practical purpose, and help us avoid or prevent dangerous situations. We might see a potential accident, and stop it before it happens, or we are ready when an unforeseen disaster strikes.

For example, if the world really did come to an end, the most paranoid neighbor on your block might be the one person that is actually prepared for it. They probably have the food and supplies stored in their garage right now.

But other times, this kind of thinking isn’t very useful, Hendriksen writes. “We foresee big problems in small things: you make a mistake at work and think you’ll get fired. Your partner doesn’t respond to a text so they must be mad at you. And sometimes we’re not even sure what we’re anxious about, but are simply convinced something bad will happen.”

How do you to fight back when your brain makes giant mountains out of tiny molehills? Here’s what Dr. Hendriksen recommends:

Challenge it

When a worst-case scenario pops into your head and starts freaking you out, she suggests you ask yourself two questions: “First, ‘How bad would that really be?’ In other words, is this truly a disaster of epic proportions? For example, ‘What if we don’t get any offers on the house?’ Well, how bad would that be? Usually, the brain can take another perspective and say, ‘Well, it wouldn’t be great. I’d have to rethink some financial decisions, but no one would die or anything. I could put it on the market again next year.’ Or, in another example, ‘What if I’m in the wrong job?’ Let’s ask again: how bad would that be? You might come up with, ‘Well, even if I am, I can always look for another one.’”

What Are the Odds?

Hendriksen’s second question is more practical: “’What are the odds?’ What are the odds it’s really a brain tumor? Is it more likely that you’re stressed and dehydrated? What are the odds she didn’t text you back because she’s mad? Is it possible she just got busy, is in a meeting, or accidentally left her phone in the car?”

Asking yourself one of Hendriksen questions, ”How bad would that really be?” or “What are the odds?” may be enough to cut any anxious thought down to an appropriate size.

When his friends asked him why he risked his life, one skydiver claimed that jumping out of airplanes helped him keep daily problems in perspective. When a minor dilemma bothered him, he told them he would say to himself, “Is this as serious as freefalling at 3,000 feet?” Because the answer was always “No,” he said the intrusion in his day suddenly shrank.

Rather than resort to a dangerous activity like skydiving, Hendriksen says the bravest anxiety fighters can earn bonus points without tackling the beast head on. They only need to grab it by its tail -the question mark.

“Anxious statements are almost always phrased as questions,” she writes. “What if?  What then? What now? And questions are slippery—they’re hard to argue with, and the answer is almost always bad.”

When your anxiety begins with “What if…” Hendriksen says you can change the question into a statement and apply the questions that will reduce it. For example, “What if the plane crashes?” would be difficult for you to answer, and the horrible question could fuel your fears. But if you change the question to, “This plane is going to crash,” you can then dilute the sentence by asking yourself, “What are the odds that this plane is going to crash?”

(Hint: plane crashes are quite rare.)

Belief #2: You can’t handle it.

Hendriksen says the second most common belief behind much of our anxiety is the fear that when what we dread most does happen, we won’t be able to deal with it. This actually makes some sense, she points out. When we don’t feel prepared for something, it’s natural to feel anxious.

“Anxiety makes us doubt our own abilities,” Hendriksen writes in the Scientific Journal. “And our fear feels like fact. We feel incapable, so we must be. We feel overwhelmed, so we must be in over our heads.”

How to Fight Back When the Fear Feels Real

Again, we must challenge it to beat it, Hendriksen writes. Her idea here, is to say to yourself, OK, if the worst does happen, “What could I do?” If you imagine all of the help you can count on, from friends, family, yourself, your school, your team, your club, whatever, you might realize you have a lot of support to help to cope with just about anything.

“If you truly had a brain tumor (even if you know odds are it’s a tension headache) what could you do? Seriously, what could you do? You’d find a good oncologist, take a leave from work, stick to your treatments, lean hard on friends and family. It wouldn’t be a cakewalk by any means. It would be really, really hard. But the point is that there are things you could do. It wouldn’t be hopeless.”

What Could I Do?

Fortunately, most of our fears aren’t that extreme. Say you worry that your vacation will get rained out. You can ask yourself, “What could I do if it does?”  You still have options, Hendriksen would insist. Remind yourself that you can always visit every museum in the city, or, you could just buy huge umbrella and go outdoors anyway.

Instead of worrying that you will never find the right partner, Hendriksen suggests that we ask ourselves, “What can you really do about it?” If we move forward, try to enjoy our lives, and get to know a lot of great people, even if the perfect person never shows up, we will have a nice life with many wonderful friends. Her point is that even when your worst fears seem enormous and overwhelming, with the right viewpoint, you’ll realize that you can handle just about anything that life throws at you.

Need More Coping Skills?

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Scientific American. The 2 Big Beliefs Linked to Anxiety, by Ellen Hendriksen, PhD. Retrieved September 28, 2016.

Help How to Stop Worrying- Self-Help Tips for Relieving Anxiety, Worry, and Fear, by Melinda Smith, MA, Robert Segal, MA, and Jeanne Segal, PhD. Retrieved September 28, 2016.

10 Fear of Flying Tips From the Most Followed Therapists on Twitter, by Tim Benjamin. Retrieved September 28, 2016.