I often use the phrase “effective action” when clients and I are considering how they can approach a situation in their lives. Clients usually reply with, “Effective action? Sounds good… how do I do that?”
The term comes out of Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a therapy that focuses on regulating emotions and increasing mindfulness so that one can have better impulse control, distress tolerance, and relationships with others. DBT encourages being mindful enough to recognize one’s reactions and then make choices that best move you toward your goals without “willfulness.” Linehan’s work describes “willfulness” as giving up or not taking action when it is needed. Willfulness can often come out of a need to be right, a refusal to accept reality as it is, or a wave of strong emotions that make it a challenge to evaluate choices.
So, how can you apply this to anxiety?
First, let’s look at how anxiety and stress can be helpful in the right doses. Anxiety is trying to keep you safe while meeting the challenges of life, but sometimes it gets too high. If we imagine anxiety and stress on a bell curve (such as the Yerkes-Dodson Curve https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law), you may have low performance when you have no awareness or stress and you need to study for a test. On the other hand, if anxious thoughts take over, you can also have poor performance because you may neglect to eat or sleep, feel so anxious that you can’t focus, or may have a panic attack during the test. When you have some concerns about the test and make a plan to study but don’t get so anxious that you impede your ability to study, you are in the best spot for taking a test and getting a good grade.
While having some anxiety is normal, anxiety that is out of control can crowd out more effective messages and behaviors. In that effort to keep us safe, anxiety often oscillates between wanting to avoid a situation altogether to over-control and over-preparation so that there is no room for error. For instance, public speaking causes most people some level of anxiety. If that anxiety gets high or you want to avoid ever feeling anxious, you might work hard to never be the one who has to speak publicly. This might mean not applying for jobs where you have to present or only taking classes without group presentations. You could also try to write out every bit of the presentation and practice excessively in an attempt to try to control how the event will go. While this might seem effective, the rigidity of these anxious actions can get in the way when you need to be flexible. For instance, what happens if someone asks a question? And it can be less engaging if you are so tied to your presentation notes that you read from them and don’t adjust the presentation when needed.
Effective action for anxiety is about acknowledging when anxiety kicks in, picking actions that move you forward on your goals, and doing what is needed without overly avoiding a situation or trying to rigidly control it. Let’s break these down a bit:
1. Start by grounding when anxious. Let yourself acknowledge and accept that you are feeling anxious. Notice your breathing and notice something in the immediate present with your five senses. Once your distress has leveled from grounding, see if you can watch your anxious thoughts go by, like leaves floating on a river. These mindfulness skills will help you to become less reactive to your anxiety.
2. Generate actions that are both reality-based and move you toward your goals. Let’s say that you know you are not making enough money at your current job and you feel like you have stagnated in your skills. You are aware that there are other positions in the company that would be more fulfilling and interesting to you, but many of them require some public speaking at board meetings or community events. Instead of giving up on applying for the jobs you want, perhaps you can volunteer to start presenting in smaller situations—such as making an announcement at a staff meeting—so that you can learn to manage your anxiety and gain experience for the job you want.
3. Do your best and watch the voices of criticism and perfectionism. Anxiety often sends the message that you should do something all the way or not do it at all. For instance, you might worry about going back to school because you are not sure that you can be the highest in the class. It is certainly normal to have some worries about going back to school and facing the uncertainty of not knowing how it will turn out. However, avoiding school when you need to retrain or get a higher-paying job is not effective. In this case, it can be helpful to encourage yourself to do your best and engage in the learning process rather than focusing entirely on getting top results that may not be needed to reach your goals.
Overall, slowing down anxious messages with mindfulness can help us to take action and start to move through the situation that is causing distress and anxiety. And this can help you to feel more confident about the action that you take, knowing it is consistent with your goals.