Does your dread of a tough conversation stop you from having it altogether? Do you get worried about how an interview might go? Do you procrastinate? All are natural forms of anxiety, but anxiety shouldn’t prevent us from living our best lives.

In this episode of “Out of Curiosity,” Chico State psychology professor Joel Minden explains a few tactics and reminders to help keep anxiety from taking over. 

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Joel Minden smiles and leans against a brick wall on the Chico State campus.
Professor Joel Minden is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavior therapy for anxiety, depression, and coping skills. (Photo courtesy of Joel Minden)

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(SOUNDBITE OF PROFESSOR JOEL MINDEN)

MINDEN: The belief is, “Let me take a take care of anxiety first, and then I’ll get on with living,” and what I suggest to people is get on with living, and then, you know, see what happens to anxiety as a result. 

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KATE POST, HOST

This is Out of Curiosity, a podcast driven by the wonder of lifelong learning from California State University, Chico.

TRAVIS SOUDERS, HOST

Welcome to Out of Curiosity. I’m Travis Souders. Have you ever experienced anxiety? Whether you’ve known to call it that or not, anxiety is a completely normal emotional response we all experience. But let’s get more specific: Have you ever experienced anxiety about something that hasn’t even happened yet?

Whether it’s a date or a job interview, we’re all susceptible to feeling anxious about the unknown ahead. How we cope with situations like that, it turns out, tells us a great deal about how we deal with—or for some of us, struggle to deal with—anxiety.

Today’s guess is Chico State Psychology Professor Joel Minden. Professor Minden is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavior therapy for anxiety, depression, and coping skills. We spoke with him about a couple of ways we can manage our anxiety. First things first, let’s define what it really is.

MINDEN: Anxiety is an emotional response, and we all experience anxiety when we think about future challenges. So if there’s something that’s upcoming that we think might be difficult or uncomfortable, it’s only natural to have that emotional response of anxiety. And sometimes that’s very useful, if it acts as a cue that lets us know that maybe we need to prepare a little bit for an upcoming challenge. One thing that’s really important here is to normalize anxiety, because it is something that we all deal with. Let’s say for students worrying about an exam or for anyone worrying about a challenging conversation that they might have to have with a family member or friend, it’s only natural to be somewhat anxious about these events. 

SOUDERS: So anxiety is not only normal, but it can actually be useful. The catch, though, is that we don’t all process the emotion in the same way.

MINDEN: Anxiety becomes a problem for people in a clinical sense when people overestimate the degree of threat. They believe that they’re in more danger than they are; they believe that whatever happens, if a bad thing occurs, whatever happens the outcome will be catastrophic; it will cause severe damage. And finally they believe that they won’t be able to cope, they won’t be able to manage challenges that come their way. And so as a result, that can create very severe problems in terms of emotional distress, and it can also result in dysfunction, which would be escape and avoidance patterns. 

SOUDERS: Being aware of the components of anxiety can help us navigate the feeling when it hits us. As Professor Minden said, there are four parts to it: The physical experience itself, the label we give to those feelings, cognitive patterns or thinking traps, and finally, urges.

MINDEN: There are the physical sensations—there’s what we notice in the body, and that’s internal arousal and tension—and then there’s the feeling label that we give to that inner experience. We might describe it as anxiety, or say we’re nervous or something like that.

Then there are the cognitive patterns, the thinking traps that we get stuck in, as I mentioned before: “Something bad will happen; it will be catastrophic and I won’t be able to cope,” and then finally there are the urges—urges to act or not act in certain ways.

SOUDERS: Professor Minden explained that our go-to’s for dealing with anxiety tend to be rooted in avoidance. Many of us dread feeling anxious to the point that we develop escapes from anxiety altogether: We might get a workout in, or distract ourselves with a half hour of YouTube. But not only are all of our anxiety avoidance tricks inconsistently effective, they miss the greater point entirely. We should be learning to live with anxiety because it isn’t something we can control.

MINDEN: Bottom line, they’re really kind of ways of coping with the emotion rather than dealing with some of the things that contribute to the emotional response or the understanding of the response. And I think that’s really important to consider too, that for a lot of people, the big issue with anxiety is not that they experience the emotion, but it’s how they respond to it. 

SOUDERS: Like many people, I feel anxiety when I experience people looking over my shoulder from behind, no matter how harmless their intention. I find it hard to concentrate or feel like I have any privacy, especially if I’m on a computer or my phone. At work, in a shared office, it happens. As I voice this, believe me, it sounds like dysfunction. But when I explained it to Professor Minden, he said it’s a classic normal anxiety response.

MINDEN: Well I think that’s a really great example because that will help me kind of highlight the importance of the cognitive element and understanding anxiety.

You know, I’m sure we all dealt with situations like that, where people are in our space and we’re uncomfortable. It sounds like your understanding of a problem like that is, maybe to some extent, “This is disrespectful—you’re not showing any concern for my rights, for my need to do my work; you’re kind of interfering with my process.” And so that kind of thinking, when we sort of believe that people are stepping on us or interfering or trespassing in some way, that kind of leads to irritability and anger.

In contrast, somebody with anxiety, perhaps they start to worry that maybe these people who are standing by me or are judging me, they’re thinking something about me or maybe because of this I’m not going to be effective in my work, and now I’m concerned that my supervisor is going to be upset with me, and so here’s that kind of future-oriented set of concerns that start to emerge and that’s the cognitive aspect of anxiety that’s so important. So you see, in these examples, and in your situation, it sounds like your interpretation of what’s going on is very different from what it might be for somebody who struggles with anxiety. 

SOUDERS: If we have a situation we’re anticipating with any kind of anxiety, our approach to evaluating the future is often one of two types of behaviors, as Professor Minden calls them: useful predictions and anxious fictions. 

MINDEN: To understand anxiety and then how to deal with it, I think it’s good to think about a belief about the future. That’s always something that you see with anxiety, it’s that anticipatory element, the idea that something bad will happen. So here’s an example: Let’s say the thinking is, the anxious fiction might be, “This job interview’s not going to go well.” That might be an anxious fiction. A useful prediction, a response to that, would be, “Well, I don’t know how it’s going to go, but maybe if I prepare a little bit or if I do a little research on the company, or if I remind myself not to focus so much on how uncomfortable I feel in the interview and redirect my attention to the interviewer, maybe it’ll go better. And all I can do is the best that I can do, and if people have a judgment of me that might be negative or that doesn’t serve well, I don’t really have a lot of control over that.” 

SOUDERS: “All I can do is the best I can do.” It’s a helpful self-reminder for those of us who want to deal with anxiety by avoiding it, instead of controlling the things we can control—like our preparation—and not the things we can’t, like our emotions. We can all control some things, but none of us can control everything.

MINDEN: That’s such an important idea. I’m glad you said that, because anxiety disorders are problems of over control. Often I find that people who really struggle with anxiety are very high-functioning in a lot of areas. They’re used to being good problem solvers; they take action if they see that something isn’t clear, or if there’s a way to improve the situation they do something about it. But where I think anxiety creates problems for people is when they try to control the inner experience, when they try to control their thoughts and feelings and sensations and urges, and you just can’t control that stuff. The best you can do is respond in a more realistic and useful way to those inner processes. So finding flexible ways to deal with anxiety is really important and so, I like how you said, you kind of attend to what you can control and then maybe you’ll learn to let go of the things you can’t control. 

SOUDERS: The key element for anxiety management, Professor Minden says, revolves around this question: How does it interfere with your life? And he points to one behavior in particular. 

MINDEN: So a lot of people tell me, “I’m a procrastinator. I put off my studying until the last minute,” and I ask, “Why? Why wouldn’t you just do it right away? Why wouldn’t you get an early start?” And people say, well, it’s boring, or, “I don’t like it.” And it’s possible those are the reasons, but I think often when people say things like that, maybe underneath it all is this concern: “When I try to work on something that’s important, I may not do a good job, I may be ineffective,” so that’s an anxiety-related concern.

SOUDERS: Some of us are simply just always waiting for the right time. The problem is that the right time may never come. We may never feel 100-percent ready. So things will get done late, or not at all, and that can create a routine, and that routine can perpetuate a cycle of feeling unsuccessful despite never having actually attempted the task.

MINDEN: And as a result, the person might start to reflect on their pattern of behavior and they might say, “Well, what I see happening here is I don’t get my work done. I’m not able to rise up to the challenge and I’m an ineffective person,” or “I don’t I have the capacity to make these changes.”  So now the way the person thinks is impacted by their pattern of behavior. So long story short, I think the most important thing for anxiety management is learning to identify your valued behavior—the things that are important, the things that give your life a sense of meaning or purpose, the things that bring you pleasure—how can I engage in those activities, even if they’re difficult, even if they’re anxiety provoking. How can I do more of those things despite the fact that sometimes I’m not 100 percent?”

SOUDERS: We talked earlier about our general desire to avoid anxiety, when in reality we should try to accept its presence. This is the basis behind another anxiety management mantra from Professor Minden: Take action; demand satisfaction.

MINDEN: If you can get to a point where you replace avoidance with action—and action in terms of value-driven behavior—that’s so powerful, because not only do you start to live your life in a way that is consistent with your values, where you experience a sense of accomplishment and a sense of pleasure, but you also provide yourself with some behavioral evidence. You demonstrate to yourself that, “Hey, I don’t have to be perfect, but I can still be consistent. I can still do the things that I care about and generally, when I take action, I feel pretty good about it and things work out.”

SOUDERS: This has been “Out of Curiosity.” I’m Travis Souders. Thank you to our guest Professor Joel Minden. He’s working on a self-help book titled, “Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss,” and it’s expected to be available later this year. The show is produced by University Communications with editing help from student Hayden Duncan. Be sure to never miss an episode by subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)