My Therapist Says ‘Yes, And’
I’m learning to reject the overpowering desire to have the one answer to my anxiety.
In early 2017, I experienced my first panic attack. I was in a work meeting with my manager when I began to feel hot and claustrophobic, sure I was going to throw up. I kept looking to the door, willing it to open and for an invisible force to propel me out of the room to safety. Eventually, I excused myself, explaining that I didn’t feel well.
On the subway ride home, as in the meeting room, I felt trapped; each time the doors slid shut, a wave of dread washed over me. After a few stops, I summoned the courage to exit the train, and, in tears, started wandering downtown Boston in the vague direction of my apartment, which was miles away. I meandered to a park, where I sat for about 45 minutes before my roommate who worked nearby came to get me. I spent the rest of the day in her office, composing myself, before she chaperoned me home.
When I began seeing my current therapist, I was trapped in a cycle of panicking and then worrying about the next time I would panic (a hallmark of anxiety), and desperate to uncover why this was happening to me. What was causing my anxiousness? What was the reason, the culprit? I’d offer hypotheses: Maybe a specific aspect of a situation triggered my anxiety. Maybe I didn’t eat enough, which made me woozy, which made me panic. Maybe the mocha I had made me jittery, fooling my body into anticipating an anxiety attack. Or perhaps the environment of sociopolitical upheaval we’re all living in played a role.
To these theories, my therapist will often offer some version of the same response: “Yes, and.” Yes, I probably didn’t eat enough, and something specific likely triggered my anxiety. The coffee and the state of the world were likely both factors.
My Therapist Says Think of the Best-Case Scenario
Instead of focusing on worst-case outcomes that are already highly unlikely, why not consider the total opposite?
“Yes, and” is best known as an improv exercise (and an episode of BoJack Horseman), in which an actor offers up a concept that other cast members then build upon. The game is meant to foster openness and collaboration onstage by encouraging participants to add to ideas, rather than detract from them.
I now understand that there isn’t always one reason for my emotional response, but many; sometimes there aren’t any reasons at all.
In therapy, “Yes, and” has served a different purpose for me. As a person with anxiety, I struggle with the unknown and being out of control. I was eager to identify the singular source of my panic in order to stop it, to regain power over myself. But thanks to my therapist’s gentle pushback to my dichotomous assumptions, I now understand that there isn’t always one reason for my emotional response, but many; sometimes there aren’t any reasons at all. Employing the principle “Yes, and” has forced me to challenge my black and white, either/or thinking — “If the ‘reason’ for my anxiety is X, it can’t by Y” — and the overpowering desire to have the answer.
While there are, of course, things I can and should do to manage my panic — go to therapy, avoid caffeine, get enough sleep — it isn’t healthy for me to obsess over every aspect of every situation, searching for the potential threat. Perhaps counterintuitively, letting go, and accepting the multidimensionality of anxiety, helped me take back control.
I’ve been seeing my therapist for three years, and in that time, my anxiety has become much more manageable. I’ve also begun to tackle my rigid thinking, not just about panic, but in general, and unpacking how it literally boxes me in.
In therapy sessions, I have a habit of articulating an experience or emotion and then saying things like “But, I know this feeling isn’t fair” or “But, I know people would disagree with my perception of X” or “But, this person doesn’t see it that way.” My therapist will respond: “Do your feelings have to be fair? Are you allowed to have an opinion that not everyone likes or agrees with? Do you and this person have to see it the same way?”
For a long time, I’ve attempted to undercut my emotions by rationalizing why I shouldn’t feel them. The “but’s” in these sentences are my attempts to qualify and even undermine my thoughts and feelings. Just as with my panic, I search for the objective truth in a given situation — I hedge my speech in case my emotions aren’t “correct.”
Applying the logic of “Yes, and” in these scenarios complicates my binary thinking: Yes, my feelings about a situation may be “unfair,” and I still feel them. Yes, I have opinions that not everyone may like, and I still have them. Yes, I see a situation one way, and it’s okay that this person sees it another way — their lived experience doesn’t negate mine, and mine doesn’t negate theirs. That doesn’t mean I should act on everything that pops into my head, or that I shouldn’t be inquisitive about my motivations and humble about my biases. But I also don’t have to beat myself up for being human. There is no objective truth, and emotions can’t be correct or incorrect. They just are.