This article is the third post, in a series dealing with the emotion of anxiety. In the first post “Is Anxiety an Emotion?”, I explained the difference between the two types of anxiety: “Healthy” and “Toxic,” and in the second post “Is Fear Anxiety?” I introduced the “what if” game. This article is going to continue by focusing on the “what if” game as it is played in relationship to Toxic anxiety and then provide tips on how to STOP the “what if” game.
THE ANXIETY CONTINUUM AND THE FIGHT/FLIGHT/FREEZE RESPONSE
Anxiety is an emotion that occurs on a continuum (visualize a ladder and you moving up on the rungs higher and higher), moving from a lower level (mild) to a higher level (severe). Many times, we aren’t aware of this because we have learned to ignore the lower levels of anxiety, denying them until they reach a level that we can’t ignore anymore.
As we climb this ladder we grow closer and closer to activating the fight/flight/freeze response. This response is activated when our brain perceives something as a danger to us. The response is initiated in the part of the brain sometimes called the “reptilian” brain or lower brain; The lower brain is the home of the instincts. Within lies the basic code for the survival of the species, which is essential to all animals.
This reptilian brain can be overridden by our higher, thinking brain, but in a situation of danger, it activates the survival mode before the thinking brain is even aware that there is a problem. This is what is called “bottom-up processing.”
BOTTOM-UP PROCESSING AS COMPARED TO TOP-DOWN PROCESSING
Bottom-Up Processing is what occurs when we experience TRUE Fear, it is an instinctual response to a threat of danger and by-passes the thinking brain. An example of this would be:
You’re standing on the sidewalk talking with a friend, and a tiger comes running down the road toward you. Your reaction would likely look something like this – first your body would be running in a direction away from the tiger (a response of your fight/flight/freeze response) only after you are running would your midbrain, where emotions and feelings reside, kick in and you would feel Fear, finally followed by your thinking brain figuring out what is happening. In this case, the last one to the party is the thinking part of the brain.
Senses register tiger ——-> Reptilian brain activates ——–> Body starts running ——-> Mid-brain activates ——->FEAR ——-> Thinking brain activates ——-> OH MY ______ IT’S A TIGER!!!
Why is it important that your thinking brain is the last one to the party in this example? The reason should be fairly obvious, if you waited for your thinking brain to figure out what was happening and then act, you would most likely be in BIG TROUBLE!
In comparison, Top-Down Processing is exactly what it implies, that thinking occurs first and the reptilian brain response last. Here’s an example of this:
You and your friend have decided that you want to watch a horror movie. You love horror movies because they really get your juices flowing. Now as you’re watching the movie and the good parts start, you can feel your heart rate and your breathing increasing. Your muscles begin to tense and you become hypervigilant and aware. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual that while in this state, if someone entered the room and tapped you on the shoulder you would probably experience a significant startle response, stating “don’t scare me like that!”
Now let’s look at this scenario and see how it differs from the bottom-up processing. First, there is absolutely no threat present in the room with you. In actuality, there are only images on a screen, and they pose no threat whatsoever! Yet all the physical responses I mentioned are indicative of the fight/flight/freeze response being set into motion, yet there is no reason for them, why did this happen?
It happened because the brain is very powerful! Recent brain research has shown that if the thinking brain believes that something is real, then it will act as if it is real, even if it isn’t.
In this case, the thinking brain decided that what you were watching on the screen was a real threat and sent this information down to the mid-brain and you began experiencing feelings of fear. This information that you were facing a threatening situation was then sent down to the reptilian brain which responded by triggering the fight/flight/freeze response, which triggered all the physical feelings that go with it.
Thinking brain decides that there is a real threat ——-> Mid-brain responds with the appropriate feelings – fear, scared ——-> Reptilian brain responds to message of threat and initiates the fight/flight/freeze response.
This is a situation where the thinking brain (top) initiated the sequence and it flowed down to the reptilian brain who then initiated the FIGHT/FLIGHT/ FREEZE response.
HOW TOP-DOWN PROCESSING APPLIES TO ANXIETY AND THE WHAT IF GAME
This ability of the brain to do this presents both positive and negative possibilities. In the case of anxiety and the what-if game, it is the thinking brain’s ability to take something that isn’t real and act on it as if it is real, that causes the problem.
By its very definition, the what-if game is about the future and its infinite possibilities and it is one of the best ways to climb the anxiety ladder
Level on the Ladder
PANIC – 10
ANXIETY – 0
Let’s play the “what if” game:
0 ——-> You’re spending an enjoyable day with your boyfriend and then he informs you that he wants you to meet his parents ——-> Oh, no, what will I wear, how do I act – 3 ——-> Will they like me? What happens if they don’t like me? – 5 ——-> If they don’t like me, will my boyfriend decide he doesn’t want to be with me anymore? – 7 ——-> Nobody likes me, nobody wants to be with me, everyone leaves me! – 10.
Now you meet his parents and they like you, you like them, and everybody gets along very well. All the above angst you went through was not necessary and wasted a lot of emotional energy and caused you a lot of distress and pain.
Playing the “what if” game with Toxic anxiety is never good and is always hurtful (yes I’m using absolutes, which I don’t usually do, but in this case, I believe its true. If you can provide me an example of when playing the “what if” game is beneficial for Toxic anxiety I would like to hear it. You can leave it in the comments below).
HOW TO STOP PLAYING THE “WHAT IF” GAME
The goal here is to stop the “what if” game as soon as you become aware it is happening. Ideally, you would never start it, but that isn’t realistic for most of us, so how do we stop the game of climbing the anxiety ladder?
First off, let me acknowledge that there are many ways and techniques available for managing anxiety, in general, but in this post, I am going to address the ones I use with my clients specifically aimed at stopping the “what if” game. However, I will also be offering both a more comprehensive list of ways to manage anxiety than these, that are more specific for stopping the game.
Also, these “names” for the exercises are my names, there is nothing official about them. Other therapists and coaches might have other names for the same type of activity, and there may even be a “professional” term for the exercise, but I don’t worry about it; because for me, the result is what’s important, not the name.
The list of things I recommend or teach my clients to help them stop the “what if” game, also includes methods for managing racing thoughts – those times when you can’t get your mind to shut down and it begins to feel like you’re a hamster on a wheel, or a dog chasing its tail but never catching it.
The KEY to both stopping the “what if” game and your racing thoughts is to stay in the present moment, which can be easier said than done.
- Labeling: This is a simple exercise in which you focus on identifying specific things in your immediate environment, in as much detail as possible. It can be anything that provides a variety of things to notice. It can be as simple as looking out in front of you and starting to name everything you see in minute detail, or it could be choosing a specific object that has variety to it and describing it in detail.
- The Tree: In this exercise, you are standing on your feet, in a stance that provides a sense of balance and stability. Close your eyes and push your feet down into the surface you are standing on. Feel the solidity of the ground under your feet. Now imagine that you are a tree and your legs are your trunk. See your feet putting out roots into the ground, going deep and anchoring you to the earth, providing a deep sense of grounding and anchoring. This exercise is good if you are feeling “spacey” or like you are floating and not really connected or attached.
- Breathe the Box: Is an exercise that combines focus, concentration, and breath control. It is simple, but not easy to do for most people and takes practice. It is also easier taught through demonstration, so I have created a free video to teach this exercise.
- Coloring: This is exactly what it sounds like. Get an adult coloring book and some colored pencils and color.
- Counting backward by 3: In this exercise, you start at 100 and count backward by 3.
If you enjoyed this meditation, Adam Michael Brewer has a program for teaching meditation called the “3 Minute Meditation” program, which I recommend as a great option for those who don’t feel they have the “time” to develop the discipline of meditation. Click here to find out more about his program,
- Guided meditation – Unlike Adam’s program which is designed to teach you how to meditate, these meditations are not designed to teach, but rather to provide you with a source of guided meditations that you can use as often as you need them. They cover a variety of different topics, as well as different time frames. I enjoy the “Honest Guys” guided meditations and have provided one here for you to listen to. However, you can find many additional options on YouTube.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: For this exercise find a comfortable place to sit or lie. Then beginning with your feet/ankles/lower leg, tighten your muscles and hold to the count of 3, then totally relax those same muscles. Next, tighten your thigh muscles and hold for the count of 3 and then relax them. Continue this pattern of tightening and relaxing your muscles as you move up your body – gluts, pelvis, abdomen/lower back, chest, hands, wrists/lower arm, upper arm, and finally finishing with your shoulders and neck.
- Relaxation Exercise – This exercise is taught through a guided exercise. I have created a free video for this exercise.
- Visualization: Development of your peaceful place – Remember how I mentioned above, that if your mind can experience something in full sensory detail, it will respond as if what you’re experiencing is real (remember the horror movie!)? This is how your peaceful place works and it is a powerful tool for creating a feeling of peace and relaxation. The development of your peaceful place is best accomplished by working with another professional, or directly with me. Therefore, I am offering a limited number of free 30-minute sessions for those who would like to work with me to develop a peaceful place.
- Distraction – Watch TV, Movies, play video games, play games – both digital and real, read, listen to music, but only if you can engage with the music. If your mind is still running while you’re listening it won’t work.
All of these exercises or activities are designed to bring you into and keep you in the present moment; and they work, because when you are in the present moment, you CAN’T play the “what if” game. No “what if” game, no climbing the anxiety ladder.
NOW IT’S UP TO YOU TO TAKE CONTROL OF THE “WHAT IF” GAME
In this post, I have expanded on the “what if” game, how it relates to Toxic anxiety, and the anxiety ladder (continuum). I have provided a brief explanation about how bottom-up processing applies to the TRUE fear response as compared to the top-down processing which is how the “what if” game can trigger the Fight/Flight or Freeze.
I then provided a fairly extensive list of things that you can do to stop the “what if” game, along with explanations or examples for some of them, as well as opportunities to experience a brief guided meditation as well as a meditation exercise.
To obtain my expanded list on tips for managing anxiety please fill out the form below, and take advantage of my free videos by indicating your interest in the drop-down menu of the form.
I look forward to working with you as you strive to manage your anxiety.