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Managing worry, decatastrophising and the anxiety equation

Updated: May 18, 2020

In my previous blog article "COVID-19 - Techniques and Ideas from CBT to manage anxiety during Coronavirus" I had mentioned the worry cycle, how worry and anxiety perpetuate each other and how we can become increasingly irrational as this process perpetuates. Without interruption, our thoughts can quickly focus on the absolute worst case scenario with a lesser and lesser concern to the actual likelihood of this outcome. In therapy when, focused on the absolute worst case outcome, we call this "catastrophisation".

During the current COVID-19 crisis, the world is functioning very differently and the future is perhaps more uncertain than ever. It is very likely that we all have many new worries and may be catastrophising how it will all play out if x happens or y happens. Fortunately there are a number of questions that you can ask yourself to aid with "decatastrophising" but before considering those lets introduce and understand "the anxiety equation".

The anxiety equation is a helpful tool used often in CBT and looks to explain the 4 variables that dictate the level of anxiety we experience. It states that anxiety is the consequence of how likely we believe it is that the bad thing will happen multiplied by how awful that thing would be. This anxiety is then lessened dependent on how well we think we could cope with this or what tools, people or help we may have that will aid in facing up to it.

Consider how anxious you would be if I said there was a 2% that when you go for a walk, it will rain. Consider this again but this time with a 99% chance. What if we change "it will rain" to "you will be struck by lightning". Now consider the mitigating factors - A 99% chance of rain but you are elderly will poor health and no umbrella. Playing about with these variables you can begin to see how anxiety can be lessened or intensified. This leads to the aforementioned questions we can ask to "decatastrophise"

When we worry we tend to focus on the "awfulness" and lose all sight of the rest. Next time you find yourself consumed by how awful the future will be, try asking the following questions:

How likely is it really, that this will happen? What is the most likely way that this is going to play out?

If the worst thing did actually happen, could I cope with it. Have i faced hard times in life before and how did I cope then?

If the worst thing did happen, who could help me? If you don't know, how could you find out who could help you?

By sitting down and asking yourself the above questions you address the three other areas of the anxiety equation lost to catastrophising. As a final further step, it can be helpful to put the awfulness in perspective by asking - if this terrible thing does happen, how likely is it I will be OK a week, month or year from now?

Hopefully these ideas are helpful and you may remember to ask yourself these questions. However, because we cannot be highly emotional and complete a very logical and mechanical task at the same time, you will likely find additional benefit if you sit down and actually write out your answers to these questions. Therefore, you may wish to check out our downloadable printable decatastrophising exercise or use our digitally fillable version.

Lastly if you are very anxious at this time and would find it helpful to speak with someone for emotional support or to discover more techniques from CBT and psychotherapy then please get in touch. We continue to support our clients at this time online through Zoom.

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