Friday, February 07, 2014

the snake

Photo: Tiwago. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved

I was talking to a psychologist about anxiety a couple of weeks ago and he used a metaphor that I found to be very helpful in thinking it all through.

"Are you afraid of snakes?" he asked.


"OK. So imagine that I'm deathly afraid of snakes and one falls through the ceiling, as we sit here. What am I most likely to do?"

"Run out of the room."

"And what's likely to happen to the level of my anxiety, once I'm on the other side of the door?"

"It will go down."

"But next time I come across a snake, what will happen to my anxiety?"

"It will spike again."

"So imagine that you are somewhat of a snake expert. What if you reassured me that this particular snake was harmless? What if I stayed in the room and you showed me that it's just a harmless garter snake and that nothing bad happens when we stay near it. What happens to my anxiety then?"

"It would go down a little."

"And the next time, I come across a snake?"

"You'd still feel anxious but perhaps not as much."

"Exactly. It's not comfortable to work through anxiety but that's exactly what makes it lessen. And hopefully, in confronting your fear, you could eventually make it disappear. Or at least diminish to the point that it doesn't affect your ability to function."

This metaphor really, really resonated with me. I told my own therapist about it and she really liked it too. It's become a short form for us. I will tell her about something that scares me or that I'm hesitant to do and she will ask, "What's the snake in that story?"

"I'm afraid that it won't be good enough."

"I don't want to feel guilty or ashamed."

"I worry that I am uninteresting."

"I'm afraid that people won't like me."

It's been very helpful. And on my own, when I feel unreasonably anxious about doing something, I imagine the snake and how it really is not as bad as it seems.

Unless it's a rattlesnake and then all bets are off. What if the thing that scares you really is as bad as your worst fears? What if it's possible or even likely to happen?

That's the part I'm still trying to figure out.

Photo: Brent Myers Creative Commons. Some rights reserved. 


Lene Andersen said...

I'm still trying to figure out how to focus on now, instead of the maybe/even likely of the Big Bad. I know the theory — that worrying too much about what might happen in the future interferes with the quality of now, but I'm not sure how to practice not seeing the shadow of the other shoe ready to drop.

Talking about it is a good start.

laurie said...

I'm with you 100%.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laurie! It's MamaBunny from the long-defunct Maya's Mom site.

Such a timely post for me to "bump into"... My daughter had a huge bout of anxiety over the last two weeks. She's doing better this week but it reached a point that I decided to enlist some professional help. Perhaps this post will help her too.

laurie said...

MamaBunny! I'm sorry to hear about your daughter's anxiety but I'm happy to see you back here. It was in fact son's therapist who used the snake analogy, so I know exactly where you're coming from. It's harder to watch your child's anxiety and feel powerless, than to try and manage one's own - at least in my experience. Take care - and stay in touch!