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Anxiety is Like Ice Cream

For a long time, I didn’t think of myself as an anxious person (cue the laughter of anyone who knows me well.) One day I had one of those “face palm emoji” moments—the reason I didn’t think of myself as anxious was because I’d never identified my specific flavor of anxiety as anxiety. I’d always thought of myself as high-achieving, perfectionistic, and a tad controlling (more laughter from friends, who would suggest removing the minimizer). 

It turns out that anxiety, like ice cream, comes in an infinity of flavors. And like ice cream, it’s hard to go through life without. 

Flavors of Anxiety: A Sample

In the pre-Covid times, you used to be able to get a little spoonful of ice cream at my favorite ice cream shop (shout out to Cream Bean Berry). While tiny scoops of Mixed Berry Crisp and Coffee Chocolate Chip are no longer an option, you can try a nibble of these anxiety flavors to see if they sound familiar. 

Worst-Case Scenario Anxiety
You’re about to go camping. Your mind is ticking through all the items you need—your sleeping bag, your tent, your camp stove and cook set, your knife and pepper spray in case someone tries to murder you in your campsite…wait, what?! Worst case scenario anxiety, also referred to as “catastrophizing,” is when your mind jumps to a terrible outcome in a fairly ordinary situation. 

“I’m Going to Fail” Anxiety
This type of anxiety contains not-so-subtle hints of perfectionism and a level of hypervigilance around mistake-making. People with this flavor of anxiety end up overperforming, checking and re-checking their work, and struggling with boundaries out of a fear of letting themselves or others down. Sometimes this type of anxiety leads to a freeze response; because you’re afraid of making a mistake or failing, you put off a task until the last minute or avoid starting it all together. 

Control Anxiety
Control is sort of a base ingredient for all types of anxiety, like needing some sort of cream to make your favorite dairy-based frozen treat. Control anxiety shows up the most often in relation to physical spaces, and has to do with things like cleanliness and order. This is the anxiety of not being able to stand messes, like dirty dishes, or towels hung incorrectly, or clutter on the table. 

“I’m a Bad Person” Anxiety
This type of anxiety is shame-based. A person in the grips of “I’m a bad person” anxiety has thoughts like “if people only knew the real me, they’d see how awful I am.” Social situations are a minefield for people suffering from “bad person” anxiety. If you find yourself replaying conversations over and over in your head, wondering if so-and-so is mad at you, and not reaching out because you’re not sure if people like you, “bad person” anxiety might be your flavor of choice. 

Health Anxiety
Our bodies are mysterious little entities, and even the most attuned of us can’t always know what’s happening in the systems that keep our heart beating and our lungs moving. Because of this, shifts in our body can cause immense anxiety. Wake up with a pain in your head? Must be a tumor. Heart racing? Maybe it’s a heart attack. Health anxiety can lead to the rabbit hole of Web-MDing and over-reliance on Dr. Google, and as you know if this is your flavor, that usually makes things much, much worse. 

Climate and Late Capitalism Anxiety
Also known as the “state of the world” anxiety. With the fire hose of terrible news we experience every day, it’s no wonder this anxiety exists. (It also pairs well with other flavors, such as “worst case scenario” anxiety.) This anxiety leaves you in a constant state of worry about the future, and perhaps keeps you up at night gnawing on apocalyptic scenarios. 

All flavors of anxiety and worry make sense. The mind is like a well-intentioned neighbor, trying to be helpful even as their dog is pooping on your law. In its quest to protect us from feelings of fear, worry, and uncertainty the mind goes into overdrive, laying out all the possible scenarios and the awful things that will happen if you choose to go camping or don’t hang up your wet towel. We ACT therapists talk about the mind as a double-edged sword. While it’s working overtime trying to protect us, buying into the mind’s attempts to be helpful can also cause misery, paralysis, relationship difficulties, and overwhelm. 

So what can you do when your particular flavor (or full blown five-scoop sundae) of anxiety is taking over? 

Anxiety Skills: A Sample

5-4-3-2-1 Skill
Take a few deep breaths, and look around you. Notice, and slowly name, five things you can see. You can either do this out loud or to yourself. Now close your eyes, and name four things you can hear. Once again, take it slow. Now, name three things you can touch, or things that are touching you, like your glasses, or your hair, or the feeling of your sweater. What two things can you smell? Is there one thing you can taste? If you can’t taste or smell anything, notice any sensation around your nose or mouth. Close with a few more full, deep breaths where you extend your exhale longer than your inhale. The anxiety might still be there, but you'll likely feel more present and more able to respond to your busy mind instead of reacting based on the scary stories it is telling you.

TIP Skill
TIP stands for temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing, and paired muscle relaxation. Temperature might include splashing cold water on your face, squeezing an ice cube, resting an ice pack on your neck, or even jumping into a chilly lake if that’s accessible for you. Intense exercise could include doing jumping jacks, or running/wheeling around the block, or going up and down a set of stairs a few times. Paced breathing is simply counting your breath: in for four, out for six, repeat. Paired muscle relaxation involves clenching and releasing muscles on both sides of your body, for example, clenching both fists and releasing, shrugging your shoulders up towards your ears and releasing, etc. 

“I Notice” Skill
“No one will ever love me and I will die alone, probably by being murdered in my campsite.” Wow, that’s an awful, heavy, anxious thought to have. What happens when you buy into that thought? My guess, from having similar thoughts at times, is that buying into that thought would probably keep me from going camping, and avoid reaching out to my friends. Now try this: “I notice I’m having the thought that no one will love me and I will die alone.” And “I notice I’m having the thought that I’ll be murdered.” Now try singing the thought to the tune of the most annoying song you can think of. The “Hallelujah Chorus” is one of my favorite songs to sing my thoughts to, because I can almost guarantee that singing “everyone hates me” to the rousing chords of Handel will at the least break me out of my spiral, and probably leave me giggling. 

With so many flavors, it’s almost impossible to get through life without at least a scoop of anxiety here and there. And while I imagine swimming in a tub of your favorite flavors of ice cream would be at least novel if not enjoyable, floundering in a vat of anxiety is no fun. Therapy for anxiety can help you learn skills to work with your inner world differently so you can get back to living the life you want. Anxiety is hard. Therapy can help.