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 a well-known name in popular philosophy, Karl Popper introduced the notion of ‘falsifiability’ into human enquiry. He recommended that we remain open-minded by checking out on what we think, see and hear. An idea remains open to be disproved at any time. Our responsibility is to remain open to that possibility…

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

Keeping an open mind

In practice, this website says the qualities of open mindedness can be developed by:

* designing small enough experiences so we can learn,

* remaining sceptical about the results,

* … and still looking for fitting evidence from your results, so you remain ….

* open to more learning, and

* remaining curious.

Such qualities will help us accept there are few final answers. We can just notice what is going on around us.

A small, safe experiment

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

Now I am going to offer a set of safe experiments to consider. I am using ‘anxiety’ as a focus, but any high emotion could be a relevant label to use.

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. The safe experiments are categorised under three headings and I will discuss each one:

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; the worst ever experience of anxiety. When you experience any feeling, do you rate it near the bottom, in the middle or at the top? 

Clearly, it will change according to the circumstances. Even so, 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 value of Subjective Units of Discomfort (SUD)

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 feelings.  As you talk, your words, rather than the words of others, may well help you find a different perspective about your experience.

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.

A Higher 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. Too often all that is available are ‘old’ habits; fight, flight or faint. The recommended alternative 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“. This sentiment can lead to the self-talk found in affirmation work.
  5. as you do this, visualise that feeling moving 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, so you may have to create one. However, with a following wind, the experience will pass in its own time. Nothing lasts for ever; whether it is a good, bad or indifferent experience.

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. If it helps, keep in mind this cartoon:

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 de-sensitise ourselves from the higher SUD and get used to a low level of fear – to accept it and to notice you can live with it. The aim is to find an experience rated at a low SUD. 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 sometimes you can get a better class of conversation going on 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 contradiction of ‘graded exposure’ when encouraging us to work on some of the trickiest safe experiments and give them a good try! She offers you an invitation to ‘forgive screw-ups’, that is, small defeats. That’s familiar, eh? By the way, I trust I never promised to be consistent.

I’d ask you not only to excuse ‘screw-ups’, or small defeats, but mine them for things to learn. Pooky 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