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Dr.Kathleen Smith is a licensed therapist and writer from Washington, DC. Much of her work focuses on anxiety. She has written for Salon, Slate, New York Magazine, Psychology Today, Lifehacker and many more. She recently released her second book, Everything Isn’t Terrible. We had a chance to sit down with her and talk about anxiety, pop culture, self care and more!
There are many books about anxiety out there. What prompted you to write Everything Isn’t Terrible?
I wanted to be able to hand a book to my therapy clients that described what working on your anxiety looks like in real time. I also wanted to provide a resource to people who maybe can’t afford to go to therapy as often as they’d like. So it’s a funny, practical book with lots of stories and exercises for people who want to work on their anxiety.
In your book you describe three tools you can use to disrupt your anxiety; observe, evaluate, interrupt. Can you explain what the three tools are and how to integrate them into your life?
Observing means paying attention to how your anxiety runs the show in your life. I call it your autopilot. Do you avoid people when you need to have a face-to-face conversation? Do you start to micromanage everyone when work is tense? Getting curious about your anxious functioning helps you change it.
Evaluating means asking yourself, “Who am I really trying to be every day?” If I was guided by my best thinking and not my anxiety, how would my behaviors and my relationships be different? I encourage my clients to sit down and write out some guiding principles for themselves, so they have an alternative to their anxious autopilot.
Interrupting means looking for opportunities to NOT DO what your anxiety would normally want you to do. So maybe that looks like being honest with your family about your beliefs and interests, instead of always talking about the weather. Or it could look like stepping back and letting your child try to do something instead of swooping in and doing it for them.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety?
The biggest misconception is that anxiety is something some people have and some people don’t have. While it’s true that some people might meet the criteria of an anxiety disorder, while others may not, we all have anxiety. Anxiety is your response to a real or perceived threat. It’s our mind and body’s way of protecting us when we are in danger. Sometimes we just have trouble evaluating what’s real danger, and what’s not.
You describe yourself as a fan girl. What does that mean to you and what are some of your go to shows and movies when you need a pick me up?
I have always been drawn to shows with complex characters. Some of my favorite shows have been ones like Battlestar Galactica, The Americans, LOST, and The Good Wife. When I need a pick me up, I usually rewatch Parks and Recreation. It gives me a burst of that Leslie Knope energy.
What shows do you think are doing a great job of portraying mental health, anxiety and/ or treatment?
I don’t usually watch a lot of shows that incorporate mental health treatment, probably because I’m too critical. I’m trained in Bowen family systems theory, so I love shows with amazing and interesting family dynamics. Succession is fun to watch for the family interactions, and so is The Crown. People are so fascinated by the royal family, but if you take a look at your own family, I promise it’s just as interesting!
What do you think tv and movies generally get wrong about mental illness, anxiety and/or treatment?
I always think that therapists are portrayed so strangely. They’re usually ambiguous, robot-like people who are trying to help their patients unearth some huge truth from their subconscious. Real therapy, at least the kind I do, isn’t like that. It’s just one human trying to help another human do their best thinking and find their way through life’s challenges.
Working in the mental health sector and living in an increasingly chaotic world is stressful. How do you take care of yourself?
I have an amazing support system of friends and family. Building stronger one-to-one relationships is always one of my goals for the new year. Also, being a part of a church committed to serving others helps me keep things in perspective. You don’t have to be religious, but I do think that being part of a community that is working on something bigger than yourself can help keep you from drowning in self-criticism or worry every day. And it provides you with those solid relationships that can bolster your mental health.
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Smith