If you or your teen struggles with anxiety it can be miserable. It’s a feeling of dread that is often in excess of an event. For example, having a lot of worry that you will fail your next test even though you’ve never failed one this school year. People who struggle with anxiety really wrestle with believing a severe consequence is coming. Usually people with anxiety are overly confident of a bad result, and do not have enough confidence that a good result will occur.
A tip for this is to honestly assess the reality of a situation. One thing I tell teens who have social fears is that nobody judges you as harshly as you do. I ask the teen, “Even when you hear someone say something stupid, how long do you think about what they said?” The normal answer is, “Not for very long. Not more than 5 minutes.” I tell them, “This is the same for others when you say something you feel is stupid.” Assessing the reality of a feared situation helps reduce anxiety.
It’s difficult to be realistic about outcomes that make us nervous. I worked with a boy who ran cross country at his high school. He was consistently the last person to finish team workouts. He had a lot of anxiety about his first race because he was afraid he would finish dead last in the whole race. He felt certain his teammates would make fun of him. He thought he might even need to give up the sport. He kept saying if only he could even finish second to last it wouldn’t be as bad. When he ran his first race his fear came true- he finished in last place. What he had predicted incorrectly was the reaction of his teammates. They were cheering him into the finish. They gave him a pat on the back when he finished. He felt more a part of the team than he ever had before. He was shocked they cared so much. He discovered that his predictions about the future were partially true, but largely untrue.
When we have anxiety we go through the same process. We think something is impossible to work though. Later we find out that somehow we survived whatever it was we dreaded. It is rarely as unpleasant in reality as it is in our imaginations. Even when it is as unpleasant as we imagine, we have more strength to survive than we thought.
Next time anxiety creeps up on you, you might try a simple exercise. It helps me to write out all the possible outcomes. I then try to put down what percentage chance each one has of occurring. My emotions make me want to rate negative outcomes highly, but when I’m being honest I know I’m inflating the negative. I am able to see that positive outcomes can happen. It calms me down a little bit. I then write down how I will cope with the worst outcome if it does happen. For example, when I was a teenager I always worried that Allison would make fun of me at soccer practice when I messed up (She was not a very nice girl). If I had done this exercise I would’ve recognized that 1) Allison might make fun of me (20%) 2) Allison won’t notice (40%) 3) Allison will notice but say nothing (15%) 4) Allison will notice but say something encouraging (25%). I would then try to work through how I would cope if Allison did make fun of me: 1) I will look at her and say nothing or 2) I will tell her that’s not very nice or 3) I will look at one of my other friends and just shake my head. This would’ve reduced my anxiety about soccer practice a lot. Unfortunately I didn’t have these tools in high school so I just dreaded practice for the 3 years that we were on the same team. How sad!
I hope this helps you or your teen next time anxiety takes over because it really is an awful feeling. Nobody wants to dread something, and this is especially true when it’s wasted worry.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT