The Good Idea Fund and Drexel’s Active Minds hosted an event May 13 for the first day of Mental Health Awareness Week with Tamar Chansky, a psychologist focused on anxiety disorders, who gave a lecture titled “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: How to Not Let Stress Freak You Out or Worry Fake You Out of Doing What You Want.”
Throughout her presentation, Chansky reminded the audience of her key point: “The problem isn’t ourselves; it’s the alarms we have.” In other words, humans are built with a fight-or-flight response triggered by the brain’s amygdalae. This type of response has allowed the human race to prosper in the face of great perils over time.
However, even though humans typically do not have to confront those types of dangers anymore (like tigers), the amygdalae still respond the same way to nervousness at an interview or anxiety over beginning a new serious relationship. It is the reason why many people find their hearts racing and palms sweating when they are anxious.
Chansky discussed another source of anxiety in areas like school and work — the fact that people waste too much time worrying about the problem rather than working toward a solution. They attribute the problem to an “external locus of control,” meaning that the issue is not rooted within themselves but rather in an outside force they cannot control. However, people can often control their problems. Chansky offered four steps to overcome this anxiety.
First, she suggested that people who find themselves overly worried pause and relabel their issues. She compared it to a caller ID. There are two separate phone lines: the one with accurate feedback and the one with bad news. If the receiver never pays attention to which call he or she is taking, then the negative thoughts will be interwoven with his or her own, and that person will dwell on the negative thoughts. However, by recognizing these negative calls, the receiver can filter the issues and address the root cause of the problem.
Secondly, Chansky recommended that the problem should be boiled down to its most specific state. People tend to create universal problems when they are lacking in one aspect of their lives. Chansky provided an example: “I can’t rely on any of my friends.” If this statement is analyzed further, its source could be as simple as, “One friend let me down.” When seemingly insurmountable issues are broken down to their most basic forms, they are usually just one magnified problem.
Thirdly, she stated that in order to solve problems effectively, a variety of solutions must be considered. One way to gain multiple perspectives is to create a list of four people — heroes, role models, family, friends and the like — and with that list in mind, consider what advice they would offer in a particular situation. She said it works, even though, in her words, it sounds “campy.”
Finally, mobilization is critical to solving any problem, and it begins with finding the small movable parts of the problem — the parts that your imagination creates or the parts that don’t really matter. Again, it is about getting to the true source of the issue rather than trudging through the infinity of surface-level negativity.
“Maybe you’re thinking about starting a business or a serious relationship. Put that goal on the top of the page and plan it out from point A to point B,” Chansky said.
Despite how simple it sounds, it will help solidify the goal in a visual context, thus making it more achievable.
Following this discussion of anxiety and its remedies, Chansky briefly discussed perfectionism and procrastination. According to her, perfectionists have a “do-good mindset” rather than a “get-better mindset,” meaning that perfectionists believe they are failures unless they do well from the start without faltering.
Their biggest problem is that they spend so much time evaluating and judging themselves that their performance, focus and mental health suffer in the process.
As for procrastination, Chansky advised, “Set up your launching pad, then walk away.” Launching pads are the places where work is done, where books are open to the required pages and laptops are ready to go. After a mental debrief by hanging out with a friend or grabbing some lunch, it will be easier to return to that launching pad and finish the required tasks.
Toward the end of her presentation, she said, “Don’t just weed out the bad [thoughts]; bring in the goodness.” A major stress reliever is gratitude. Many people have started keeping journals of random acts of kindness or moments that made them smile because it creates a sense of appreciation and well-being.
Chansky also said, “Empathy reduces stress anxiety.” So rather than hate someone for not smiling back or worry about some incident, Chansky said that we should empathize with those who hurt us. No one knows what is going on in any one person’s mind or life, but trying to understand others makes life less stressful. There is no need to reciprocate animosity or tension. That only causes more anxiety. Maybe, by considering other people’s situations, some of their anxiety can be relieved through empathy and compassion.
Chansky closed by saying, “It’s your choice. Choose wisely.” Even though thoughts cannot be changed, reactions to them can be. With the right reactions, unnecessary anxiety will dissipate and productivity will increase.