We avoid our feelings by worrying too much

A client of mine tended to worry a lot before giving a talk in front of a group of people.  He worried that his mind might go blank or he might make mistakes in the talk.  He also worried about the possible negative responses from the audience.  Despite he had prepared the topic of the talk thoroughly, he still worried about being unable to answer the questions given by the audience at the end of the talk.  A few hours before the talk, he kept ruminating about his worries and felt distressed for being unable to control his mind.  Usually, when he was giving the talk, he was totally fine and performed very well.  However, his anxiety before giving talks increased as time goes by.  He felt overwhelmed by his anxiety and worries before each talk he had to give for work.

This client suffered from intense anxiety before public speaking.  In fact, he had a tendency to avoid experiencing the anxiety before the event by worrying about this coming event few hours before.  This focusing on the future makes him unable to live in the present moment.  Without experiencing the anxiety few hours before the talk, he was unable to manage the anxiety effectively.  The experience of anxiety was blocked and he was not exposed to the anxiety.  This interferes with successful emotional processing while he was anticipating public speaking.  In fact, to reduce his anxiety before giving a talk, it is necessary for him to be exposed to the increase anxiety during the anticipatory stage.  It is important for him to understand that feeling a certain level of anxiety before public speaking might be normal and adaptive.  Furthermore, he would increasingly associated threats with giving a talk in the long run by worrying about it few hours beforehand.

It is common for people with generalized anxiety disorder to have such a tendency to avoid experiencing anxiety similar to this client.  The distraction from the present moment by worrying actually makes people unable to respond to the current environment adaptively.  This also restricted their behavioral repertoire to cope with the current environment.  For instance, my client’s rumination of his worries few hours before giving a talk restricted his coping with sudden change of schedule of the rundown and last minute change of some of the content of the talk suggested by his boss.  Indeed, the blockage of emotions when one is worrying also makes the person to be unable to use one’s emotional information effectively.  This restricts the information one could obtain from one’s current environment and respond effectively.  For example, a person cannot obtain enough information about people she encountered in a networking event in order to give appropriate responses if she kept ruminating about her worries.

For those with generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, it is important for them to take an acceptance stance when they are experiencing anxiety in relation to a certain event, such as public speaking.  To increase present moment awareness of one’s anxiety, it is important for one to notice whatever arises internally during anticipation of an event.  With mindfulness, one is being able to be aware that what are arising are just thoughts, feelings or sensations.  If one is being able to bring compassion to the experience, one is more capable in processing the emotions more effectively.  In the long run, rumination of worries before the event might be reduced.  One is being more able to come up with more adaptive strategies to cope with the event.

Practicing mindfulness exercises, such as sitting meditation or body scan, regularly is beneficial for us if we have a tendency to ruminate our worries.  It is important for us to practice noticing our internal and external stimuli with an open and curious attitude.  If we learn to experience our internal and external stimuli with compassion, we may be able to worry less in the long run.

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