Some people who experience anxiety interpret every negative feeling that they have as anxiety. A different way to work with anxiety is with an anxiety timeline. Anxiety can mask different types of meta-emotions but sometimes anxiety can feel so overwhelming that identifying and understanding the feelings underneath can seem impossible. This tip will help you break down your anxiety into more manageable parts so you can better identify and understand what is anxiety and what feelings may be misinterpreted as anxiety by using a timeline exercise.
This anxiety timeline exercise will help you to understand your anxiety in order to better address it. Think of the timeline as replaying a movie. You will need to pause, rewind, or fast forward a few times to gather helpful information. When you are having an anxious episode, the moments often move so fast that you have no idea what happened or what created the anxiety. By using pause, rewind, and fast forward, you can slow the anxiety episode down to see where you get stuck, and what are the contributing factors. Here is how it works. Pause encourages you to remember the episode and really focus on what symptoms occurred. Knowing your anxiety symptoms can help you identify future anxiety episodes allowing you to intervene quicker to self soothe. Rewind helps you to see what may have been contributing. For example, were you rehearsing anxious thoughts about an event that contributed to the anxiety, did you have too much caffeine, were you angry about something else that led your body to already be agitated etc. Fast forward helps you to see problematic ways that you respond to your anxiety such as berating yourself, thinking negatively, etc. In order to complete the exercise, pick a recent example of a time that you experienced an anxiety episode. Write out your experience with as much detail as possible.
Anxiety Timeline Scenario
First, describe the event the occurred in your journal or word document. Once you have described the event go through the questions below:
PAUSE - What was occurring in the moment or right before?
- List what physical sensations were happening in that moment? Think about where in your body you were feeling the anxiety? Here are some common examples:
- Heart racing
- Sweaty palms
- Inability to focus
- Stomach ache
- Jaw clenching
- Tense shoulders
- What did you do in the moment (e.g. run out of the store, do some deep breathing, remain frozen etc.)?
REWIND - What was happening before you felt the anxiety?
- What was the trigger or triggers?
- What thoughts were you having about the trigger? What were you fearful would happen?
- Was this trigger an actual threat to your safety?
- What are your insecurities?
- Were your basic needs met (sleep, hunger, thirst)?
- What were the emotions you were feeling before the incident occurred?
- What did you do for self-care after the moment passed?
- Did you think helpful coping statements or did you berate yourself for your anxiety?
- What emotions did you feel after the incident (relief, anger, sadness, etc.)?
- If you stayed in the situation, did your feared outcome come true?
Emma was working on a big project at work to present to her boss. As she was nearing completion, she realized that she was feeling anxious. She felt anxious throughout the presentation and feels that she said some stupid things and looked foolish and incompetent. Her boss gave her some criticism of her ideas in her presentation.
- Her anxiety symptoms were: sweating, stomach churning, heart racing, clenching her jaw , tension in her shoulders.
- What she did in the moment: She continued finishing the project despite her anxiety.
She took a few deep breaths before going into the meeting with her boss. Her anxiety
symptoms continued during the presentation.
- Her trigger: Emma doesn’t mind doing presentations so that is not the trigger but she has always felt anxiety when she has to present ideas to her boss. The trigger was presenting ideas to her boss.
- Thoughts about the trigger: Whenever she thinks about it, she has thoughts that her ideas are stupid, that she is going to criticize her ideas and that she can’t live up to the expectations of her job.
- Safety: The trigger was not about physical safety, but there might have been threats to her self-worth as illustrated by her insecurities.
- Her insecurities: She realizes that she fears being embarrassed and lacks confidence in her ideas. She also identified that having this anxiety makes her angry and frustrated with herself.
- Were her basic needs met: Emma remembered that she had slept poorly the night before and had skipped lunch because of working on the presentation so those were factors. In addition she had more caffeine than usual because she was so tired.
- Emotions before the incident: Emma was feeling sad and frustrated before even getting to the office. She had an big argument with her boyfriend the night before that did not end well.
- Self-care: After the presentation and discussion, Emma went over every criticism that her boss gave. She realized that she didn’t do any self-care.
- Helpful coping statements or berate yourself: She berated herself for not having the perfect presentation and for not anticipating her points of criticism.
- Emotions after the incident: She felt relief that it was over and sadness for not feeling good enough. She also still felt sadness and frustration overall and realized that she was still thinking about the argument with her boyfriend.
- Feared outcome: since Emma received criticism, her feared outcome came true. She had great difficulty seeing any of the positives in the situation.
Now that you have completed the anxiety timeline, we are going to review what you learned. Reviewing an anxious incident can help you to figure out how to prevent it in the future. If you can’t prevent it, the review can also help you to know how to manage it better during and after. Go through the following steps to process what you learned from the anxiety timeline exercise.
1. Write down what you learned and how you may be able to prevent an anxious episode or understand the unresolved feelings that you may have interpreted as anxiety. For example, maybe your anxiety was not only because of a trigger that occurred but also because you had skipped breakfast. It is also important to factor in the things that occurred before the incident such as frustration over another incident, being rushed and angry at yourself for being late, going to bed late and getting too little sleep etc. While anxious thoughts and situations are certainly a factor in feeling anxiety, sometimes other emotions or physical states can contribute to feelings that we may interpret as anxiety.
2. How can you respond differently in the future? Consider the following questions.
- What are some ways you can handle physical symptoms of anxiety in the moment and before?
- What can you do to keep you in the moment to face the anxiety?
- How can you practice better self-care?
- What are some positive coping statements?
- How can you respond to negative thoughts?
- What would happen if you sabotaged this future opportunity and your worst case scenario came true?
- How might you recover?
- What would happen if it works out in your favor? How could you let yourself recognize the good parts of the scenario?
Example: Emma decided to really focus on doing some deep breathing when she is feeling anxious in a future situation as she knows that helps with her anxiety. She is going to stay in the moment by focusing on the project in front of her, rather than her negative thoughts. She is going to make sure that she takes care of her basic needs as best she can. She will acknowledge other feelings that are underneath her anxiety. If it goes well, she is going to focus on all the things that went well as opposed to berating herself for things that didn’t. Anxiety functions well for some people as it is a motivator to help people make change in response to something dangerous. However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming, you can feel unable to make changes and can feel completely out of control. You can gain control over your anxiety and learn to understand it as well as the emotions that may lie underneath. If you notice you are still struggling with anxiety or anxiety in specific situations, you may benefit from the help of a therapist to walk you through other strategies.