The Anxiety Equation in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: A simple tool for breaking down your fears
The ‘Anxiety Equation’ is an idea used in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) to help a person understand their anxiety by breaking it down into smaller conceptual parts. By doing this, therapists hope to help clients to feel less overwhelmed by their anxiety, to understand it better, and then also to begin to get to grips with it, one part at a time.
The central idea in classic CBT is that our emotions are influenced by our cognitions (thoughts, memories, mental imagery, symbolic meaning). The idea is that if we think about something in a particular way, that will affect how we feel about it. By re-evaluating our cognitions (whether that involves looking at their accuracy or helpfulness), the hope is to be able to change how we feel to some extent. With anxiety, this involves re-evaluating a perceived sense of threat, and our beliefs about our own ability to cope with that perceived danger.
The anxiety equation provides the starting point for re-evaluating our perception of something as threatening (and so potentially reducing the level of anxiety we feel about it) by breaking it down into four components.
The anxiety equation breaks down anxiety about a specific event into four parts: The perceived Likelihood (of the feared thing happening), its perceived Awfulness (if it were to happen), the extent to which one believes one could Cope with that eventuality, and whether we think other people would Rescue (help or support) us. The higher the former two, and the lower the latter two, the more anxiety we feel.
This refers to our estimation of how probable we think something is to happen. For example, if I am considering going speed-dating, and I think it is inevitable that I will get zero matches (my feared outome), then that will make the prospect more anxiety-provoking for me than if I think I have, say, a 50:50 or better chance of getting some matches.
This refers to the personal meaning we attribute to the feared outcome (“what would be the worst thing for you if that did happen?”). We may think something is highly likely, but if it doesn’t bother us, we’ll probably be less upset by the thought of it. However, if we think the feared outcome is going to have serious consequences for us, or says something significant about ourselves, our future, our place in the world, or how we are seen by other people – that is going to distress us more. In the example above, if I think that getting zero matches at a speed-dating event signifies that I am found totally undesirable by everyone, and will therefore never meet a partner, then the prospect becomes more distressing due to the meaning I am attaching to it (the way I am thinking about it). Whereas, if I am able to see it as a one-off event, perhaps related to the chance combinations of who I sat opposite, I might not consider it that much fun, but wouldn’t take it to heart so much.
This refers to how much we consider our own ability to deal with the setback, either emotionally or practically. In the speed-dating example, if I were unfortunate enough to get zero matches, but I were able to consider other ways of meeting a partner, or knew of ways to cope emotionally with that disappointment without beating myself up, I’d imagine I wouldn’t feel so bad about the prospect.
This refers to what we imagine the reactions of others to be like (in the event that the ‘worst case scenario’ does come about). Do we imagine they would judge us, or be compassionate and understanding? Do we envisage being alone with dealing with whatever it is that troubles us, or do we think significant others would help us if they could? If I imagine people laughing and being unsympathetic about getting zero speed-dating matches, that is likely to make me feel worse in anticipation of such an event; whereas, if I imagine friends being reassuring and encouraging, I might feel more able to face my fear.
How can this help me?
First, develop your own personal anxiety equation for a circumstance that particularly troubles you. Work out (on the left hand side) what exactly it is you fear happening. Then, populate the right hand side. Don’t try to change anything just yet, or argue with or reassure yourself – Just reflect on what’s going on in your anxious state of mind.
Then, try to reconsider what you have put. It is usually easier to deal with one part at a time.
If you like or are good at maths, you can even deal with the ‘Likelihood’ part probabilistically: “What are all the steps necessary for this feared outcome to come to pass?” “How likely is each one, let alone all multiplied together?”
When dealing with the ‘Awfulness’ aspect: Ask yourself - “Would it really mean that?” “What would I think it would say about someone I cared about if it happened to them?”
When anxious, people often get stuck on the top half of the equation: Ask yourself – “If the worst did happen, how could I cope with or move on from it?” “How might other people help or support me?” “What happens if I look beyond that feared event, either in time or by setting it into the wider context of my life?”
Developing and understanding your own ‘anxiety equation’, and then re-evaluating it, can involve being able to make use of other CBT strategies, so there will be more blog posts on these in the future.
This is not the universal equation
There are many techniques and approaches in CBT; different ones work for different people. The anxiety equation is one way of beginning to consider an alternative way of looking at what distresses you. I hope that this introduction to it has provided you with some food for thought in trying to manage anxiety.