Up & Down The Ladder – A Tool for Anxiety

Anxieties. All of us have them. Some of us are debilitated by them. Some of us have learned how to manage them. Self-talk and self-awareness tools have been found invaluable in greatly improving that management.

Here is a quick & effective tool to practice the next time you need to de-escalate your anxiety.
It is culled from powerful Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) methods and traces a path up and then back down the ladder from the physical realm, through emotions, to the intellect and back again.

1. Physical Level – Learn well your triggers. Notice what triggering external circumstances are occurring for you when the anxiety hits. Perhaps you are in a crowded area. Perhaps you skipped lunch. Perhaps you skipped lunch and just downed a coffee. Perhaps you recently heard some bad news. Perhaps all 4 of these are happening at the same time. Mental fitness comes from being intimately familiar with the types of circumstances that disrupt your sense of calm. Notice when you are in the danger zone of those recurring triggers. This taking-stock and self-awareness will allow you to best manage your reactions.

2. Emotional Level – Notice your emotional terrain. When trigger x occurs what do you feel? It is crucial to be able to identify the range of your emotions. Create the self-awareness that – “When x happens I usually feel y.” Typical triggered feelings are things like fear, worry, overwhelm, panic, hopelessness, worthlessness. Emotions often express themselves as physical symptoms with no physical cause. (Like getting sweaty when you are sitting on a coach.) Notice how your emotions are expressing themselves in your body – sweaty palms, racing heart, heavy chest. Take stock of your emotional reality. It is hugely helpful to take deep breathes to get those physicalized emotions to calm down.

3. Intellectual Level – Now notice your thoughts, particularly the distorted or exaggerated ones.Imagine that there is a tape recorder in your head recording the thoughts that are coming to you in your anxious state. Map it out for yourself, “When trigger x happens, I usually feel y and I usually think z.” For example, a client of mine was struggling with the anxiety she felt about the recent fires that had flared up across Israel. We walked her up the ladder, through the triggers, the emotions and the thinking behind it. It sounded something like this:

“When I watched the news of the fires I felt panic. I noticed my heart starting to beat faster and it became harder to breathe. I felt scared. Terrified. I felt despondent about the state of the world. I thought to myself, ‘The world has become a scary place.’ Then I felt helpless and weak and said, “I can’t handle another piece of bad news.”

Now, imagine that those larger-than-life anxiety thoughts that are racing through your head are simply distorted thoughts. Distorted thoughts so often take root in our minds and claim our reality, wreaking all sorts of havoc on our emotions. They put us in a highly unproductive anxious state…which it turns makes it increasingly harder to deal with life’s genuine challenges…which produces more anxiety and the cycle becomes endless.

Now we come to the Table. Imagine that the distorted thought is a table. There are core pieces of evidence that form the table’s legs that prop that unproductive thought up. Now imagine that your rational mind has the ability to simply overturn that table and create a new one. The opposite one in fact. Then build 4 sturdy legs of evidence that prove that new thought to be true. Imagine your inner rational voice standing up firm and assertive. Maybe the voice is wearing glasses, maybe a suit and tie. See the part of you that thinks rationally.

Thus the statement “I can’t handle another piece of bad news” becomes, “I actually can handle this bad news.” And 4 sturdy pieces of evidence of that are:

  1. Because I handled the bad news of my uncle’s passing and that was much worse than this.
  2. Because bad news happens now and then and that is just life.
  3. Probably it’s not as bad as I fear. Perhaps all of these fires aren’t just arson-terror but also weather conditions. It doesn’t mean life is hopeless.
  4. I am actually entirely safe right now in this moment and there is little possibility that anyone is going to be harmed. The world is not falling apart. This is news I can handle.

Now you head back DOWN THE LADDER with this new thinking in mind. Emotions – Now notice your emotions. When I see those 4 sturdy pieces of evidence I FEEL: calm, relieved, practical concern but not panic, a sense of acceptance and a sense of self-empowerment that I can indeed get through this.

Physically – Make trigger adjustments. Now I can go back and tweak any of my physical realities on the ground that had unnecessarily stirred up my anxiety. For instance, if I hadn’t had lunch, I make sure to eat that…now. If I had been triggered by watching the news, then I turn off the device feeding me that steady drip of anxiety. Maybe there is something you can do on the ground to relieve the anxiety. If you are in a fire zone, then yes, calmly leave it.

Commit to creating a reality on the ground that fosters calm and peace. More sleep, more healthy eating, less caffeine, less internet.

We are not saying that it is possible or even preferred to escape all of life’s anxieties…rather, the goal is to meet life’s naturally occurring challenges from a place of grounded got-it-together calm and strength.
Try this tool out and let us know how it works for you. Or share with us a tool that has worked for you!


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