Is it your middle name? Your first name? Your last name? All three?
Anxiety is real. It is painful and a growing percentage of Americans suffer from anxiety from mild to severe. Many require medication. However, medication alone does not conquer anxiety. Sometimes small changes in thinking, repeated over and over make an immense difference.
How we look at, interpret things and situations can make an enormous difference. It is often subtle. In fact, so subtle that we may not notice. Our interpretation is known as framing. We put everyone and every situation into a framework, a frame. It is our “frame of mind;” how we are thinking about it. We can view situations from a positive or negative frame. Let’s look at one situation from two different frames.
- You’re on the way to work. You think, “If the traffic continues like this, I’ll be on time.”
That’s positive framing. Your goal is to arrive at work on time. Your thinking is positive; you’re hoping and trying to achieve a positive outcome. You aren’t anxious. These are just positive thoughts. You are using a positive frame. You’re in a positive frame of mind.
- You’re on the way to work. You think, “If the traffic continues like this, I won’t be late.”
This is negative framing. Your goal is to avoid being late. You are thinking about a negative—being late; you are trying to avoid a negative outcome. These are actually negative thoughts. Some tension is present. You’re fearful of being late because late is what you are focused on. You are in a negative frame of mind. You may not even be aware of it!
You may be thinking this is really the same thing. It’s all about traffic and getting to work --- but it is not the same! How we think, how we frame situations generate emotions ... positive or negative.
Thoughts lead to Emotions, which lead to Actions. The action may be: more thoughts, body tension, death grip on the steering wheel, headache, tight gut, etc. if negative. This can generate circular thoughts, a spiraling. Thoughts generate feelings, which generate thoughts, which generate more feelings … positive or negative.
If you are framing the first thought in a positive way, such as on-time, when the traffic stops completely, you may wonder if you will still be on time. You may think through what action to take if it appears that you may not be on time. [Notice this is all still positively framed. Your goal is still to be on time.] You don’t panic. You call work and tell someone about the traffic delay; a delay you cannot control. Now they know the reason, if you don’t arrive on time. You may feel some tension, but not full-blown anxiety. You realize you can’t do anything about the traffic. You’re able to tell yourself you can stay calm. That thought generates calm, or at least reduces tension.
If you are framing the first thought in a negative way, not being late, when the traffic stops completely, you may become very tense and anxious about being late. Your thoughts go to negative consequences. “I’ll bet written up. Yelled at! Fired!” Anxiety increases and may lead to panic. Anxiety is generated by thoughts which generate the emotions that generate anxiety. You are now caught in a negative feedback loop wherein all thoughts are negative and generate more negative thoughts and more anxiety.
Traffic starts moving, you will be on time! You arrive fairly relaxed and glad to be on time. Still positive.
Traffic is moving, you won’t be late. You arrive tense and drained, but relieved not to be late. Still negative.
You can reduce your anxiety!
- Become aware! Be aware of what the situation is. (There is always a situation.) It’s noon; it’s Saturday; the car has a flat tire; the kids are home; it’s Monday; the boss is coming to dinner; I’m running late. These are all situations.
- Ask yourself, “What’s my goal for the situation?” Figuring out the goal is the key to how you are framing the situation. It tells you about your expectations for outcomes, consequences.
3 - Evaluate your “frame” of mind? Are you framing the situation positively or negatively? Is your goal to achieve or avoid?
It’s raining and you need to leave the house. What is your goal? Do you want to stay dry or avoid getting wet?
The physical outcome may be the same, but the experience is different. The outcome may be better too. It feels better to stay dry than avoid getting wet. Positive framing empowers. It seeks a positive goal. Negative framing just tries to avoid, well, the negative. To avoid getting wet, you may just grab an umbrella and dash to the car.
Positive framing looks for more choices, better solutions. You may do something extra to stay dry. You add a raincoat or jacket and boots because you want to stay dry. Positive framing sometimes means we take more time or put in more effort, but it leads to more positive outcomes.
We, humans, tend toward the negative more than the positive, so we need to work to increase positive framing which reduces anxiety. Increasing positive framing is the goal. Reducing anxiety is a positive side effect of that process. The thought process that leads to anxiety and panic starts long before we are aware that something is bothering us. Before we realize we are framing one or more situations negatively, the emotions being generated by those unconscious negative thoughts are generating tension. This leads to more negative thoughts, more tension, and anxiety. Awareness occurs once our anxiety reaches a heightened state. Becoming aware earlier and earlier interrupts this process and allows us to reframe the situations, change our thoughts, and reduce or even prevent anxiety.
The following exercise will help get you started. Read the situation, figure out your goal. If it is negative, write a positive reframe (like the rain ex. above – staying dry is positive, avoiding getting wet is negative).
- What is your goal?
- Is the goal framed positively or negatively? [Reframe to positive if necessary.]
- How will you handle the situation? Will you handle it differently if it is a positive or negative goal?
There is a deadline coming up you must meet: a project at work or school, cleaning the house for guests.
An event is approaching. You are required to attend, but do not have clothes appropriate for the event. It’s a business meeting or a family wedding.
There is a potluck tomorrow and you committed to bring a dish.
The washer is not working, the repairman can’t come until next week and the kids have no clean school clothes or you have no clean work clothes.
Your week is very busy. You are asked to do something else and agree to do it.
As you go through your week, practice evaluating various situations, activities or events by asking yourself, “What is the situation? What is my goal?” Are they more often negative — trying to avoid rather than achieve? As you become more aware of how you frame, you can deliberately, consciously reframe the negatives into positives. It becomes habit with practice. It truly will, because that is how anxiety is maintained – through habit, mainly the unconscious habit of negative thoughts.
If you did the exercise, fantastic! It might have been somewhat confusing. If you would like to come in and talk about the exercise or other ways to reduce your anxiety, I would love to meet with you. Call or text my cell or send an email. I look forward to hearing from you.
Jeanne Robertson, Ph. D., LMFT, LPC Director, Center for Counseling and Education