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Ridding Yourself of Anxiety

“Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”: FDR’s First Inaugural Address

The last full week of July I had the privilege of attending a 4 day seminar conducted by Dr. David Burns, MD. This is equivalent to a LEO seeing Lt. Col. David Grossman, Graham Gordon, Coach Sokolove, or Dave Smith. All of these gentlemen have contributed forward movement in the field of law enforcement in a manner that changed it forever. Dr. David Burns, MD, as one of the founding fathers of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), has worked alongside well-known greats in the field such as Albert Ellis and Dr. Aaron Beck. CBT is used by many therapists because it was developed out of time-tested research and to date, from what I understand, is the only method of therapy proven effective by research. This is not to say other methods are ineffective, because that is not true, but CBT continues to be researched and developed. Dr Burns continues his research at Stanford University where he teaches and mentors other professionals. Dr. Burns has passion for the advancement of the mental health field.

I’ve been treating anxiety disorders since 1996 and I find them one of the easiest disorders to help someone heal from if the patient is willing and motivated to make life changes and to give up irrational beliefs rooted in self-protection. People with anxiety, however, tend to be the most stubborn and resistant to change. Which, if you think about it, is why they have anxiety; they fear changing what they believe to be true, but what is often what we call cognitive distortions, as coined by Dr. Burns, that are exaggerated and irrational thoughts. It is my belief, as well as other professionals, that an anxious mind can be retrained to be peaceful and calm, even without medication in the majority of the cases, if a patient is willing to challenge the thought and belief system they have convinced themselves keeps them from emotional and physical harm.

The irony is that their belief system actually hurts them and others around them. It creates restrictions on their day-to-day life, inhibits the flow of intimacy with friends, family and significant others, keeps them from taking opportunities that could advance their careers and interpersonal development, and they live their life focused on the problems around them rather than seeing the solutions.

First Step

Anxiety disorders can be healed or retrained quickly, often in one to six sessions, if the patient is willing to, as Dr. Burns puts it, “roll up their sleeves and get to work” and are “willing to pay the price” - meaning emotional turbulence, pain, anger, and discomfort - to obtain the desired results. However, most people with anxiety have protected themselves from those very emotions for a long time and are having difficulty with negative emotions on a daily basis; the fear of more discomfort scares them motionless. Anxiety patients often want to have the desired results without the work, or hope for a “magic bullet,” but nothing that is pure and good in this life is given to us, it is earned through hard work. So the first step in working with anxiety is to break through their resistance, which is often thought distortions, which keep someone stuck.

For instance, with panic disorders I have had tremendous success and have often had patients that, after a few sessions, the panic attacks go away. Panic attacks are very scary for people and, if left untreated, can develop into restrictive behaviors and thought patterns that talk them out of going into stores out of fear everyone is watching them, driving for fear of having a panic attack that will cause them to pass out and crash, taking a test for fear that their mind will go blank and they will fail, etc. My recommended course of treatment for panic attacks goes against every self-protection mechanism that the patient has put into place over the years, but it is the only way to retrain the brain. I challenge their worst fear and advise them they need to start having the panic attack instead of following their instinct to block it from happening. If my patients are willing to experience the flood of emotions and physical reactions that accompany a panic attack over and over again, they begin to find out the panic attack does end, they are not crazy, and each time the panic attack is less severe, until it comes back rarely or not at all. Seems simple, but few are willing to fight through the walls of their cognitive distortions and beliefs; instead they hold onto their perceived truth that their distorted thoughts are true and right.

Second Step

Once a patient has decided they are willing to pay the price and to roll up their sleeves and get to work we then set goals and a plan of action. We start to identify what it is they want as the desired outcome and how they will achieve it. However, resistance to change often sets in again at this time, so a homework assignment I often give is to read the book Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson, MD. It is a short parable that identifies and explains our emotional reactions to change and how it can lead us to destruction. It is also an excellent book for managers to go through with their teams when an agency is restructuring.

The plan of action will be to challenge their fears, phobias, and thought distortions that keep them stuck. The absolute key to mental health is how we respond to change - whether we are able to adapt or are resistant. Resistance leads to anger, anxiety, helplessness, low self-esteem, a victim mentality, and destructive relationship choices. Our immersion in change and flexibility leads to making choices that promote a healthy and happy lifestyle.

In challenging their fears it is good to look at the specific thought patterns that are keeping them stuck in destructive behaviors. Some common thought distortions according to Dr. David Burns which can be read about in his book The Feel Good Handbook are:

All or nothing thinking – Thinking of things in absolute terms, like "always", "every", "never", and "there is no alternative". Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute.

Overgeneralization – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations.

Disqualifying the positive – Continually deemphasizing, or "shooting down," positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons.

Jumping to conclusions – Drawing conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are also identified:

  • Mind reading – Assuming special knowledge of the intentions or thoughts of others.
  • Fortune telling – Exaggerating how things will turn out before they happen.

Catastrophizing – Focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable

Emotional reasoning – Assuming reality to reflect emotions, e.g. "I feel it, therefore it must be true."

Should statements – Patterns of thought which imply the way things "should" or "ought" to be rather than the actual situation the patient is faced with, or having rigid rules which the patient believes will "always apply" no matter what the circumstances are.

Labeling and mislabeling – Explaining behaviors or events, merely by naming them; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, a patient assigns a label to someone or himself that implies absolute and unalterable terms. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

Personalization – Attribution of personal responsibility (or causal role) for events over which the patient has no control. This pattern is also applied to others in the attribution of blame.

Third Step

The last step in treatment is exposure and homework. No one rids themselves of anxiety by talking about it; that does the opposite, feeding and intellectualizing the fears; makes it worse!!! Talk therapy alone does not work for retraining the brain from believing it is anxious. Negative behaviors lead to negative cognitions and feelings. Repetition of positive behaviors leads to good feelings. One cannot have good feelings without the good behaviors.

LEOs know this to be true because how you train in tactical skills is through repetitive training with the ASP, Taser, target practice, and so on. One does not learn to hit the bull’s eye by talking about it and never shooting. That would be stupid!! The same is true with retraining the brain to be calm. The way to heal from anxiety is exposure to the fear, immersing yourself in the feared behavior, experiencing that the fear did not come true, going through the painful emotions, and accepting that it was a distortion of thoughts and reality that kept you stuck in a destructive mindset. So if you have a fear of public places expose yourself to public places and go make a fool of yourself. Go act like a chicken. Yes, people will look at you, but it will not harm you. If you are afraid of public speaking, join Toastmaster’s. Take a speech class at a community college, or in a crowded elevator start reciting a famous speech. If you have a fear of driving, get in the car and drive until the panic passes. Put no restrictions on the pain you will endure, unless life threatening; for instance if you have a fear of heights, do not jump off The Golden Gate Bridge since that will kill you.

The only way to heal from anxiety and to retrain the brain is to be willing to roll up your sleeves, get to work, pay the price of emotion turbulence in order to achieve the reward of a calm and content mind.

Recommended Reading:

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff & It Really Is Small Stuff by Dr. Richard Carlson

The Feel Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns, MD

Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.