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Quick Summary: Anxiety and stress result from a person’s subjective perspective of a situation. To create more objectivity and reduce anxiety, we can use time as a lever (remove a person from the present moment). At the end of this article we provide 3 CBT based exercises that patients can practice to help train their thought processes and reduce anxiety.
Stress and Anxiety is Defined by Perspective
Stress and anxiety are the result of when someone perceives a discrepancy between the demands of a situation and the resources they are equipped with to deal with the situation. A psychologist, Richard Lazarus, formulated this dominant psychological theory in the 1980s. Specifically, anxiety comes from the perception that the demands of a situation exceed the available coping-based resources.
Therefore, change your perspective and get rid of your anxiety. Unfortunately, this is no easy task. It involves altering our brain’s default mechanisms.
Understanding The Brain’s Default Response
To best understand this concept, we need to begin with the brain. The brain is incredibly sensitive. Its default, go-to response is to relate all possible sources of stress back to the self – which is the medial frontal gyrus, or MFG.
The MFG’s placement in relation to other brain regions is interesting (but unfortunate): Right below are the negative emotion-related areas; on one side are the evaluative-related areas; and on the other side are attention-related areas. These network-dense brain areas talk to one another. This means that any negative situation we encounter is relayed back to our sense of self (the MFG). Our attention gets directed to the stress over and over again. This dysregulation creates a dangerous neural feedback loop.
Practical Strategies: The Perspective Lever of Time
We can use practical exercises to adjust perspective, rewire the default brain modes and alleviate stress and anxiety. These exercises are referred to as ‘Perspective Levers’ and a core lever is the use of time as a way to alter perspective.
Humans are remarkably skilled at mental time travel. The fancy term is “chronethesia”. When we remember (past events) or forecast (future events), we perceive experiences differently based on the degree of temporal or psychological distance. For instance, you can remember a flight to New York that happened yesterday (near) and the flight to New York that happened 6 months ago (far). And though they may have been virtually identical, you experience them differently.
These differences can be utilized for a change in perspective, which can help pull an individual’s sense of self away from the stress. The key is this: Distant memories/forecasts are “lived” in the mind’s eye through an observer or objective perspective. While near memories/forecasts are “lived” more in a subjective or first-person perspective. In order to help a patient separate themselves from stress or anxiety, they want to generate experiences that are, in their mind, more distant in either the future or the past.
Here are 3 exercises that you can provide to patients that help separate themselves from the stress:
1. FUTURE-SELF RETRO METHOD:
Imagine yourself and your situation in a year from now. Yes, of course the future is uncertain and anything can change. But we can, to a certain degree, envision what things will be like and how you’ll think/behave. Now, as your future self, imagine you’re looking back to this time and to the situation that’s causing you stress. Write out answers to the following questions:
- What does your future self think about the current (stress) situation?
- What’s the stress rated now (0-10 scale) versus what’s the stress rated by your future self? Has the anxiety subsided?
- What does your future self know compared to your currents self?
2. LETTER TO THE FUTURE:
Write a letter to your future self explaining the situation as you’re experiencing it right now. Rate the anxiety (from 0-10 scale), describe the thing(s) that’s causing you stress and how you think it’ll change in the future. Once you’re finished with the letter, read it as if you’re your future self. This will pull you away from the stress/situation.
3. PAST-SELF THINK BACK METHOD:
Recall a situation in the past, no less than a year ago, where you were dealing with a similar stress. Write out the answer to the following questions:
- At its peak back then, how bad was the anxiety? What would your past-self have rated it (0-10 scale)?
- How long did the anxiety and stress persist?
- At what point did it subside?
Credit: This article was developed with the support of Psychology Compass, an online resource of science-backed lessons that have been developed by their team of PHDs.