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How To Manage Anxiety With the Anxiety Equation

In this article, ManageMinds explains how you can use the Anxiety Equation to understand what's causing your anxiety and develop a set of coping skills that will slowly minimise your symptoms.

Bethany Hall

Woman in an orange jumper sat on the floor

Learning to manage anxiety can be a challenge. Not only do you have to struggle with determining the source of your anxiety, but you’ve also got to deal with the assortment of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that come with it.

With the Anxiety Equation, however, you can break your anxiety into smaller parts to minimise its intensity and increase your ability to cope. Let’s go!

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

The Anxiety Equation is a concept used in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help patients understand their anxiety and eventually minimise it. So, before we get stuck in, we’ll first provide a quick overview of CBT.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a talking therapy that enables people to better manage their mental and physical health problems by changing how they think and act.

CBT revolves around the idea that the following areas are all connected:

How you think about a situation can strongly influence your corresponding emotional and physical feelings, and subsequent response. If, for example, you think about a situation negatively, you’re going to experience negative emotions, which may cause you to behave in a specific manner.

During CBT, patients will learn to identify their negative thought processes and behaviours, challenge them and, eventually, change them. Typical strategies include: 

What is the Anxiety Equation?

Close up of various equations on a board
Image source: Saad Ahmad (via Unsplash)

When our anxiety starts to rise, it can be difficult to stop our worries and catastrophic thoughts from taking over, making it impossible to focus. The Anxiety Equation is a self-help technique used in CBT to help people work through these worries and thoughts to understand what’s causing their anxiety and how to minimise it

If you struggled with maths in school, you might be slightly intimidated by the thought of using an equation. Fortunately, it’s a lot more straightforward than it sounds!

Here’s what it looks like: 

Anxiety = Overestimation of Danger / Underestimation of Coping

Let’s break it down…

Overestimation of danger

The top part of the equation refers to the degree of our anxiety. In other words, it’s our estimation of how likely an outcome is and how horrible this outcome might be if it does occur.

To illustrate this, we’ll use an example.

Eric has an intense and long-standing fear of heights. He goes out of his way to avoid dealing with escalators, high-rise buildings and other extreme heights. His friends want to go on a trip that will involve hiking uphill, but Eric is convinced that he’ll fall or be unable to make it all the way. 

His overestimation of how likely this scenario is to happen is worsened by his concern that it will ruin the trip for his friendsincreasing his anxiety levels further.

Suppose Eric was able to take a step back and weigh up how accurate his estimation of danger is or consider how understanding his friends might be in such a scenario. In that case, he might not be as distressed about the situation. 

Underestimation of coping

Anxiety isn’t just caused by our overestimation of the danger a situation or outcome presents to us. Our assumption that we won’t be able to handle this situation well, or have outside help, also plays a role. 

Let’s go back to Eric’s situation for a moment: 

His fear of heights is so intense that he has zero confidence he will be able to cope with hiking uphill and face the extreme heights that come with it. All he visualises in his mind is himself shaking, panicking and falling. 

Whilst his friends would be present in this scenario, Eric imagines them being impatient, annoyed or unsympathetic to his fear. This makes him feel like he would be unable to reach out for outside help to overcome his anxiety. As a result, Eric’s anticipation of this potential danger worsens. 

Though Eric’s fear of heights makes him anxious about hiking uphill, it wouldn’t be as intense if he knew he could cope with it or if he could depend on his friends to help him face his fear. 

The outcome

The intense combination of overestimating the danger of a situation or outcome and underestimating your capacity to cope with it increases your anxiety levels. It can often result in avoidant behaviour

When we feel like a dangerous outcome is likely and greater than our ability to cope with it, the ‘natural’ response can often be to prevent the outcome from occurring altogether. By avoiding the source of our anxiety, we feel relieved and don’t have to face the emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety.

In Eric’s case, he would turn down the opportunity to go on the trip with his friends to avoid having to deal with heights. Though he’d be disappointed and slightly envious to miss out on everything else, the relief of having escaped danger will be greater. 

While avoidance can improve your anxiety on a short-term basis, it can also increase your reluctance to confront the object of your fear. The more you avoid something, the more unfamiliar and dangerous it becomes in your mind—making you feel even less confident in your ability to cope. 

For example, Eric might avoid any trips with his friends altogether, just on the off chance that they want to do activities near extreme heights. Consequently, his estimation of his capacity to cope completely plummets, and his anxiety worsens. 

In short, avoidance can create a vicious cycle that can increase someone’s estimation of danger and exacerbate their anxiety. 

Using the Anxiety Equation

Woman out an equation on an electronic whiteboard
Image source: ThisisEngineering RAEng (via Unsplash)

Before we explore how you can use the Anxiety Equation, we’ve got to emphasise that the goal here is not to fix or eliminate your anxiety but to minimise its intensity so that you can face your fears confidently. 

Fill out your equation

You’re going to start by creating your own anxiety equation that focuses on a specific situation causing you to feel intense anxiety.

Make sure you’re completely honest with yourself when you fill out your equation. This isn’t the time to judge yourself, second-guess your feelings or counter your fears—it’s just an honest reflection of what you’re thinking. 

Anxiety

Sum up the scenario or outcome that is causing your fear. If a few steps are involved, or you can pinpoint exact triggers, feel free to list them. The more information you have here, the more you’ll understand what’s going on in your mind. 

Estimation of danger

Now you need to gauge how likely you think this outcome is and how horrible it would be if it did occur. This is where your catastrophic thinking—imagining the worst-case scenario—will come into play.

Estimation of coping

Lastly, you need to consider how you would cope when your feared outcome occurs. Do you think you would be able to respond effectively? Would you be able to depend on a friend or family member to help you out or support you in some way? 

Reevaluate your equation

With your equation now complete, it’s time to work on minimising the intensity of your anxiety. You can do this by reevaluating your estimation of danger and increasing your capacity to cope with the situation. Let’s take a look at how this works.

Minimising your estimation of danger

To evaluate how realistic and accurate your estimation of danger actually is, you’ll want to write up a list with two columns: 

  1. Evidence that supports your estimation
  2. Evidence that counters your estimation

You’ll probably be able to fill out the first column in no time, as it’s always easier to find evidence to support your anxious thoughts and worst-case scenarios. If you’re struggling with the second column, you might find it helpful to: 

The next thing you need to do is consider how horrible this outcome would really be if it happened. Often, the scenarios we create in our minds are far more negative than what actually ends up happening. So, ask yourself, is there a chance that you’re being slightly irrational?

Increasing your ability to cope

It can be easy to focus too strongly on the top half of the equation, given that it revolves around our worst fears coming to fruition, even though the bottom half is what can make or break our ability to face our fears. 

However, if we can convince ourselves that we are able to tackle a feared situation on our own, or with a support system, we can start to manage our anxiety. 

So, what could you do to cope if this situation did occur?

Whilst reevaluating your estimation of danger is important, working on developing your coping capabilities is far more effective and vital. No matter how anxiety-inducing a situation is, if you know deep down that you will be able to cope with it, you will have the confidence to face it. 

Learning to manage your anxiety

Now that you know how to create and understand your own anxiety equation, you can begin to reevaluate your concerns, try a different way of thinking and develop a set of coping skills that will slowly minimise your anxiety in certain situations.

The Anxiety Equation is but one facet of cognitive behavioural therapy. So, if you found it helpful, you might want to consider CBT with a professional. It can help you recognise negative thought patterns and learn vital coping mechanisms that will help you manage your anxiety. 

If you’re considering this approach or are interested in other treatment options for anxiety, then ManageMinds will be glad to help. Check out our therapy services, or get in touch with us, to take your first step towards managing your anxiety. 

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