Anxiety and Control Chart Exercise | Counseling | Therapy

Anxiety and Control Chart Exercise

Shannon , LCSW — Therapist, director of intern program, director of rhode island office

For many people, anxiety is triggered by attempting to control things that you actually have no control over. You feel stressed about the possibility that something might go wrong, and stay up at night imagining every possible way that might happen, and how you might prevent or respond to it, even when the thing you’re worried about is wildly out of your control. One of the most common examples of this is trying to manage how other people feel about you. While you can twist yourself into knots trying to make sure your appearance or your behavior is pleasing to the people around you, in reality you have zero control over the inner workings of other people’s feelings.

Why does anxiety lead you to spend hours fixated on things outside of your control? In a way, anxiety is doing it’s best to protect you. Anxiety causes you to become very skilled at intuiting and anticipating potential threats. In fact, you become so good at it, that you begin to anticipate and ruminate not just about things you can manage (what if I forget my points during the presentation?) but things you cannot (what if the entire computer system goes down and I can’t access my powerpoint?) If this is happening to you, it’s time to retrain your anxious brain so it can become more efficient. It’s time to identify what you actually have control over, so your anxious brain can stop spending time and energy on things you do not.

This activity guide will walk you through an example using the following scenario:

You are invited to attend a birthday dinner this weekend. You are close with the person throwing the party, and feel really anxious about whether or not to go. You are exhausted from a hectic work week and a nasty cold, and you have already reached your weekly “fun budget.” You know that if you do go, you’ll get sicker, and you’ll be mad at yourself for spending money you don’t have. You’re worried that if you don’t go, your friend will be hurt, and you’ll miss out on an important and fun night with a friend group you don’t get to see often.

What you’ll need:

30 minutes

Paper, folded into 3 columns

Writing implement

Label the three columns on the paper “Under my Control” “Out of my Control” and “What I’ve done to Control”

Under my Control In the first column, list everything about the situation that is under your control.

  • Whether or not I go to the party
  • If I decide to treat my cold
  • If I decide to spend over my budgeted limit
  • If I share my feelings with the birthday girl
  • Whether or not I’m going to address my anxious feelings
  • Whether or not I’m going to invest in friendships

As you write things on the list, resist the temptation to write down results. Notice item 2 - you can’t control whether or not you’ll be sick or how quickly you’ll get better, but you can control whether or not you will treat your cold symptoms by getting rest, avoiding alcohol, and taking medicine.

Out of my Control In the second column, list everything about the situation that is out of your control

  • How the birthday girl will feel about your decision
  • How anyone else at the party will feel about your decision
  • Whether or not I’m sick
  • How much money I have and have already spent
  • Whether or not I’m anxious.

What I’m Doing in this column, draw a line from each of the items in “Out of my Control” and write down the actions you’ve taken or imagined taking to maintain control of them.

  • Sending a lot of texts, asking her repeatedly if she minds you staying home, avoiding talking to her, telling her you’ll probably go but planning to not show up
  • Inviting other guests to hang out next week, texting other guests about how you’re feeling, asking other guests if you should stay home
  • Ignoring my symptoms, taking medicine, drinking alcohol, sleeping more
  • Avoiding looking at my bank balance, planning to eat before I go to dinner
  • Talking to lots of people about the situation, talking to no one about the situation.

Underline the actions you’ve taken that can create a positive impact. Strike through actions that could increase your anxiety, or negatively impact people. You might mark up this column differently than our example, and that’s fine! Here is the sample mark up.

  • Sending a lot of texts, asking her repeatedly if she minds you staying home, avoiding talking to her, telling her you’ll probably go but planning to not show up
  • Inviting the birthday girl to hang out next week, texting other guests about how you’re feeling, asking other guests if you should stay home
  • Ignoring my symptoms, taking medicine, drinking alcohol, sleeping more
  • Avoiding looking at my bank balance, planning to eat before I go to dinner
  • Talking to lots of people about the situation, talking to no one about the situation.

Based on this mark up, you now have a plan for how to proceed. You have adjusted your expectations of results: you can’t control how the birthday girl will feel, or the pre-existing context (your health, your finances.) You can: show your friends you care about them, to protect your wallet, and to address your health. You can do this by inviting the birthday girl to hang our another week, talking to her or another friend about how you currently feel, and taking steps to protect your health and spend less money.

Try using this chart the next time you feel anxious. It may be that you have trouble with the final step: figuring out which actions are potentially helpful or harmful. That’s ok! Sometimes our desire to maintain control can make it hard to reorient and reality-test our natural instincts. If that’s the case for you, consider making an appointment with a therapist to develop additional tools to manage your anxiety.

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