Anxiety and small, safe experiments

Getting at the truth

“It’s very hard to learn from very big mistakes”  Karl Popper 1902-1994.

Perhaps not the best known name in philosophy, Karl Popper is known for popularising the notion of ‘falsifiability’. He recommended that we keep checking out on what we think, see and hear.

….. and be willing to acknowledge that we are wrong.

Keeping an open mind

The skills involved here are keeping an open mind, and possessing a willingness to see that something is wrong. In practice, and on this website, this can be helped by:

* designing small enough experiences so we can learn,

* remaining sceptical about the results, and

* still being open to more learning, through

* remaining curious.

Such qualities will help us just notice what is going on around us. I say more about this further down this page.

A small, safe experiment

Whenever you do a small, safe experiment, it may help to keep in mind that your aim is to learn and to accept. Being willing to be wrong can help me to learn and accept.

Now I am going to offer a safe experiment to consider. When you design small safe experiments to work with your anxiety, it may help to have a ‘map’ in mind, and here is one I am offering to you:

Anxiety with SUD

Safe experiments when experiencing high emotion

The vertical column, labelled Anxiety (it could be any feeling, anger, despair, hopelessness) can be marked 0, at the bottom – for ‘no awareness of a feeling), up to 10 at the top. When you experience any feeling, do you put it near the bottom, in the middle or at the top?  Note how the diagram demonstrates that feelings rise and feelings fall. They could stay the same, but most often, they are going one way or the other!

The illustration offers three levels of ‘small, safe experiment’. In the lower reaches (SUDs 0-3), you may find ways to talk to yourself or, indeed, talk to others, about those negative feelings.  Your own words, rather than the words of others, may well help you find a different perspective.

In the middle (SUDs 4-7),  experiments can help you to divert and distract yourself from a particular feeling.  Diversion has the effect of helping us to step back or away from a particular experience. Instead of focusing on the feeling, we are able to dilute the experience – to step back and see a different or larger picture. In the world of therapy, there is a tendency to be dismissive of ‘just’ diverting ourselves. I say, “don’t knock it if it works”.  Furthermore, some diversions have direct impact on the body, e.g. controlled breathing.

Using Subjective Units of Discomfort (SUDs)

At the top of the curve (SUDs 8-10)s, the experience may well feel over-whelming. It is very difficult to step back and/or see things differently when feelings are that intense. Instead, the recommended strategy is to go with the flow; that is, to just notice the experience, here-and-now.  One way to ‘just notice’ is:

  1. to complete the Body Scan;
  2. label any emotion you are just noticing;
  3. instead of pushing it to one side, as might be tempting to do, stay with it.
  4. look it in the eyes – so to speak – and tell yourself “you are not my best friend and I just wonder, now, what you are telling me“.
  5. as you do this, watch that feeling move from one field of ‘vision’ toward the opposite side of your mind’s eye. Note all this requires imagination and creativity. You may not really have a mind’s eye, it’s a metaphor, or something, so you may have to create one. However, with a following wind, the experience will pass in its own time.

How do you sustain Just Noticing

Keep in mind, if you would, that you can feel bad about the experience, or you can accept it. In accepting the feeling and just noticing it, you may find that the feeling is not killing you.

Nothing lasts for ever.

It may help to use affirmation work and acknowledge that “Even though I am feeling [what you are feeling], I can still deeply and completely accept myself“. Such affirmations, reinforced by tapping, do help some people quite often.

In phobia management, there is a technique called Graded Exposure; this provides for a slow and managed exposure to a feared object. If the exposure programme is very carefully graded, it is possible to get used to a low level of fear – to accept it and notice you can live with it. After that, we can move on to a ‘higher’ level of exposure until the time comes when I am able to say “whatever was I bothered about.…?”

As you persist with your experiments, you may find you are exposing yourself to things once avoided. In time, you may feel more confident about your ability to move up close to an experience and then move back from it.

Part of the instruction you will give yourself about what to do, how to do it and how often to do it will be inside your head.  This conversation is called an ‘internal dialogue‘. It  can be regarded as a ‘conversation’ between what I call ‘parts’ of ourselves, as odd as it may sound …..

Bear in mind that you can get a better class of conversation between your ‘parts’, than with the rest of the world!

Other ways to find experiments with high emotion

For substantially more small, safe experiments, take a look at Pooky Knightsmith’s material. She has produced a small, but densely packed manual called Cards Against Anxiety (2020) Quarto Publications. It is a readable and clear presentation of ways to manage anxiety.

I liked her willingness to say some of the trickiest safe experiments might well be the best ones to go for; at least give them a good try! She offers you an invitation to ‘forgive screw-ups’. That’s familiar, eh.

All I’d asked is that you not only excuse ‘screw-ups’, or small defeats, but mine them for things to learn. Screw ups are, after all, just small defeats.

She has her own YouTube presentation at:

She pays attention to breathing controls,numbering exercises, particularly ‘counting down’ exercises. She calls ‘acting as if ….’ – faking it!

Whatever works!!!

Other leads to consider

What is a nudge?

How to design safe experiments

Categories of safe experiments

Managing how emotions

Flight and fight

…. and other obstacles

An index of pages on Your Nudge

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