“On a scale of one to ten, how anxious are you?”
Ever struggled with anxiety and been asked this question? Does it start with zero or one? Is ten the highest or the best number? What is a three, or four, or seven on this ambiguous anxiety scale? Ever wondered how to measure your anxiety? What is your answer right now?
As a therapist, even I have been baffled by this attempt to quantify emotion. In therapy, some a regularly scheduled group that focuses on ways to manage fear and anxiety. We start every session with an anxiety check-in. Sometimes, people sitting perfectly still, with no apparent stress, will softly say their anxiety level is “ten”, indicating they mean “the worst of the worst”. Others will be barely able to sit still but label their anxiety level a “two”.
The truth is, the experience of anxiety, though all humans experience it at one time or another, is a subjective experience. In addition, the disorder of anxiety is often greatly out-of-proportion to what anxiety would typically be. Few people are ever directly taught how to analyze and measure their anxiety. It can be highly frustrating, making the anxious person feel increasingly isolated.
How to Measure Anxiety
What if there was a way to measure so that others could understand? Thankfully, there is! Let me introduce you to the Subjective Units of Distress Scale – SUDS for short. This is a tool one can use to talk about your anxiety with more clarity. As it is still a subjective scale, no two scales will be exactly alike. It needs to be created and then taught to significant others so that everyone is on the same page.
To create a SUDS of your own, there are three important steps: Measure, Analyze, and Express.
MEASURE.For this step, consider the following chart:
Step One: Measure
For this step, consider the following chart:
As you can see here, the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety are specifically matched with particular, associated mental or behavioral actions. Mild-to-moderate feelings of anxiety are meant to be slightly uncomfortable, but not distracting or disturbing. The goal is to attempt to maintain ourselves at this level, five or below, so as not to get too close to disconnecting from the thinking part of your brain.
With respect to this chart, think about the examples above. What about the person who appeared calm but said they were at a ten? Or, the fidgety person who declared they were only a two? The truth is, one cannot know if there is no shared scale – however, my guess is that the person who reported a higher number has a stronger dislike for the feeling of anxiety than the person who reported the lower number. As the scale indicates, the associated mental and behavioral processes may not be conscious. Fidgety person may not be mindful of the body’s desire to leave the room.
It’s all guesswork, though, if there is no common language. To create that language, let’s move on to the next step.
Step Two: Analyze
Once you have a standard way to measure, you can begin to analyze your own anxiety. To do this, make a thermometer of your own, keeping the chart above in mind, fill in your thermometer with a specific experience, thought type, and body sensation each step of the way. This can be difficult at first if you feel your anxiety is always high. Take your time and maybe even ask others to share their impressions of your lower levels. Here are some examples:
0 (No Anxiety)
That time we were at the beach in Maui (experience) My mind was empty (thought type: calm) My body felt completely relaxed (body sensation)
Each morning when I’m sitting at the table having my tea (experience) My mind is engaged in reading the newspaper (thought type: engaged) My body is upright but relaxed (body sensation)
When I imagine going to work (experience) I think about my boss (thought type: contemplative)My stomach starts to tighten and my jaw clenches (body sensation)
When I’m cut off in traffic while running late (experience)I think negative thoughts about other drivers (thought type: negative)My whole body feels tense and my face is hot and red (body sensation)
When my boss put me on the spot in front of everyone (experience)My brain shut off (thought type: absent)Heart races, sweaty, racing thoughts, and nauseated (body sensations)
The experiences placed on this chart would be different for everyone. For example, one person may chart being cut off in traffic while late at a four while others may have it up near an eight. The experiences, then, are subjective, but the measure they use to place them on the chart are standardized. Once the chart is filled out, the person can more clearly explain themselves to others. This brings us to the last step.
Step Three: Express
Once you have a clear way to express your anxiety to others, find the people important to you (and safe – people who will not judge or minimize you) and share it with them. They may have questions about why you placed each experience at its particular level. It can be a conversation starter and can even help you further hone your understanding of your own anxiety. Finally, once your loved ones understand the chart, if you tell them “today is a 5 day”, for example, they will understand what that means and hopefully be more accommodating. We all teach the world how to treat us. When anxiety is involved, it is important to be proactive and precise in our instruction of others.
If you do not have people who are safe to talk to, then practice “talking” about it internally, to yourself. Use the language of the measuring method above. When you sense rising anxiety, think to yourself, “I am thinking of ways to leave. This means my anxiety is high and I need to calm before I do anything else.”
Find a Support to Help with Your Anxiety
In the beginning, it may be difficult to accurately measure your anxiety. The feelings being naturally uncomfortable can feel stronger than they are. Once you learn how to measure, analyze, and express your anxiety, you also need to learn calming and problem-solving skills. Everyone faces anxiety from time-to-time. However, if you struggle with moderate-to-high anxiety on a regular basis, finding a support group can help. Contact us for more information and to find out how you can build skills that lead to a life free of unnecessary anxiety.
Written by book author, blogger, & educational/motivational speaker, Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP. Founder and owner of Potential Finders Network, Hannah provides consultation, training, and personal development services. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. If you have topics you want to suggest, please don’t hesitate to contact her at Hannah@PotentialFinders.com and check out Facebook to learn more.