Anxiety Response Plan


By Bob Mcnutt, LCSW

Anxiety is a normal part of everyday life for most humans. Each of us has a different ability to cope with or accept it. Anxiety typically promotes action or avoidance depending on our response style to distress. While there are a lot of “right” ways to deal with anxiety, avoidance is an inadequate response to get past distress in the long run.  Outlined below is a response plan that combines both coping and acceptance skills for dealing with anxiety.

Notice and label the physical symptoms of anxiety. Rate their severity independent of each other.  (The fuzzy pressure in my chest: 7/10, energy in my limbs 5/10, heat and pressure in the head 3/10, increased breathing rate 5/10, increased heart rate 7/10 . . . etc.) Notice the difference between discomfort and acute pain. Many times, anxiety is uncomfortable without creating active pain in our body, and it can be useful to note that difference when it is present. If useful, try to compare it to other uncomfortable experiences such as headaches or diarrhea that affect, but don’t ruin your day.  “Well at least it isn’t as bad as a migraine.”

Ask yourself: “am I in physical danger?” (Is there immediate harm to my body) and “am I in emotional danger?” (Is there immediate danger to my ability to maintain relationships, employment, self-worth? Is anyone emotionally attacking/berating me?).  If you feel you are in acute danger, find a way to increase your safety. If you can evaluate that you are not in danger, acknowledge that (out loud if possible) to help reduce chances of entering fight/flight/freeze mode.

Take 10 deep breaths (yes 10, not 1 or 2), and focus on connecting with the current moment and experience non-judgmentally (this is neither good nor bad, it just is). In your free time do some internet research around mindfulness skills to help with this process.

Investigate the message behind the anxiety: 

  • Does this connect with an internal or longstanding fear?

  • Does this connect with an internal or longstanding judgement I have against myself or the world

  • Does this make me predict the future (in a dismal way)?

  • Does this make me feel out of control?

  • What am I trying to avoid? What do I want to go away?

  • What do I want solved?

Evaluate your ability to act towards the stressor. Can you take effective action to reduce the stressor now? (This can be problem solving behavior, acceptance behavior or internal shifts in thinking).  Do you have to wait for a future condition to be met before you can take effective action towards the problem?  Are you powerless to take effective action to influence the problem?

If you can take effective action, TAKE ACTION IMMEDIATELY. Do not procrastinate or avoid an effective solution. If you are unable to act in the moment, make a plan with SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-based) to address the problem when you are able. If you are unable to take effective action, acknowledge this lack of control and power. Combine soothing skills with this attempt to accept powerlessness.


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