How to react when you become anxious – the AWARE strategy

The AWARE strategy can be used to reduce our distress we feel when we become anxious. The five steps of this strategy are:

 A –accept the anxiety.

Anyone that has tried to wrestle anxiety into non-existence can tell you this is not an effective long-term strategy. Fighting with anxiety is like holding a beach ball under water – the harder we push it down, the stronger it wants to pop back up. So our first step to reducing our anxiety is to first accept the anxiety, even though it is uncomfortable. Do not judge the anxiety as good or bad, instead simply acknowledge the physical sensations that you feel in your body.

W- watch your anxiety as a detached observer.

Pay attention to your thoughts and physical sensations in a non-judgemental manner. You can rate your anxiety on a scale from 0-100, then watch it ebb and flow.

A – act.

Continue to live your life despite the anxiety. Slow down if you have to, but stay in the situation and keep doing what you are doing. Continue to breath slowly. If you run from the situation your anxiety will go down, but your fear will go up. If you stay, both your anxiety and your fear will go down eventually.

R- repeat the steps.

Continue to accept, watch, and act until the anxiety dissipates. This will reduce your fear and you will learn to cope with your anxiety for future situations.

E – expect the best.

When we struggle with anxiety, we often catastrophize (predict a catastrophe will occur). We can challenge these catastrophized automatic thoughts by expecting positive outcomes. Expect some anxiety but also expect that you will be able to handle it and it will go down eventually.

 

The AWARE strategy comes from one of the most influential therapists in history Dr. Aaron Beck, one of the founding fathers of CBT. He details this strategy in greater detail in his 15th edition of “Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A cognitive perspective.” Click here for a video of Aaron Beck and the Dalai Lama.

 Personally, I have found the AWARE model helpful in both my own life, and in the lives of my clients. It combines the non-judgemental acceptance of the present moment of mindfulness approaches with the deliberate continuing to remain in the anxiety provoking situations of exposure therapy. When I was in school I would become anxious prior to having to give class presentations. I would sweat through my shirt and my body would shake uncontrollably. By accepting my anxiety and repeatedly giving presentations, I was able to reduce my anxiety over time. Now I routinely teach classes in front of dozens of students with only minimal anxiety. When we stop fearing our anxiety and avoiding anxiety provoking situations we can learn to trust ourselves and the world a little bit more.

 

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