08/14/2011 10:59 am ET | Updated Oct 14, 2011

The United States of Anxiety

America is in an acute state of anxiety. For those of you who were concerned during the debt ceiling discussions, have been fearful during the stock market gyrations and are now panicking about your job, family and future, take a moment, take a deep breath and imagine that there is a better way. Because there is.

As human beings, our minds are prewired to react more strongly to negative information than positive information. This makes sense from an evolutionary psychology perspective: Negative information may mean threats to our survival, such as predators who may try to eat us. This is the reason that when a stranger gives you a nasty look it stays on your mind longer than when someone flashes a smile at you. This natural bias towards focusing on the negative becomes even more pronounced during times of uncertainty. When we don't know where to turn, anything that seems potentially dangerous grabs our attention and activates our primitive survival instincts.

The fight or flight system is quite useful when you are facing a specific physical threat, but it is not helpful when you are facing general uncertainty, which is really what this is about. In fact, our survival instincts actually steer us in the wrong direction and can quickly make the situation worse. What is needed during periods of uncertainty is not this primitive instinct toward biological survival, which drove investors to "sell, sell sell!" on Monday, but rather the capacity to use our higher brain centers to imagine a different future.

As a clinical psychologist, I don't treat nations, I treat people. In my work, I often see patients who experience intense, runaway anxiety (not unlike what happened on Monday) at just the time of a triumph or when things are about to turn for the better. Giving into the fear of the moment is both psychologically unpleasant and socially contagious. When other people see, or sense, that you are afraid, they focus on their instinctive reaction to seeing your fear and begin to experience terror themselves. Societal fear can quickly create an environment where your fears can come true simply by people behaving as though they are true. Regardless of the headlines suggesting the end is nigh, try taking a beat and doing something different: Imagine that all is not lost. Consider the ways that the future might actually be better than the present or the past.

When I am with a patient who is in the grip of such a panic, I suggest following these three steps in order to shift from fear to faith:

  1. Recognize: If you can recognize that you are in a state of panic, you are, frankly, more than halfway to stopping it. If you are not sure if you are in a state of panic, ask yourself this question: "Can I choose to stop these unpleasant, spiraling thoughts if I want to?" If the answer to the question is, "Yes," then go ahead and do it. If the answer is "No," then you have just realized that you are panicking.
  2. Refocus: Focus your energy on your five senses. Ask yourself: "What am I smelling?" "What am I seeing?" "What am I hearing?" "What are the tastes in my mouth?" and "How is my body feeling?" If you intentionally bring your focus away from the scenarios of Armageddon (not the Bruce Willis version) that you are cooking up and unto your present circumstances, you will break the chain of runaway thinking, because you can't do both simultaneously. Even if you only get a brief respite any break, no matter how small, is enough to change the direction of your anxiety and help you take an active approach to problem solving.
  3. Re-imagine: Take your doomsday scenario and re-write it so that you are not stuck with the same old script. Write a Hollywood ending if you like. If you are scared that you will lose all of your money in the stock market, imagine the opposite. Picture the market changing direction, and that you will have more than you will ever need. If you have been out of work and are afraid that you will never get another job, imagine that you will be inundated with job offers. I am not suggesting that by simply imagining these things that they will happen, only that by doing so you can stop the spiral of anxiety and start thinking and planning for your next steps. That shift can make all of the difference between fueling the contagion of panic and returning to a more balanced state where you can actually effect real change in your life.

Your imagination is your greatest cognitive gift. It is also our greatest national asset. The ability to imagine a different and better future is the first step toward creating one. By recognizing, refocusing and re-imagining your circumstances you will feel better in the moment and shift from fear to faith. Using your mind's eye to envision a positive outcome can help calm you down and make better momentary decisions. Plus, you might just inspire others to do the same.

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