“If you ever become a teacher, do NOT give out lots of homework-I hate homework. Homework is so bad. I have a life, and homework is not fun. If you do have homework make it like Mad-Libs.
-Real entry from Dr. Davis’s 7th grade journal
Well, I hate to ignore the pleas of my 7th grade self, but I give out homework. Every. Single. Session. I have yet to assign anyone MadLibs. And overall, I’d bet people would say that the homework is not fun.
Why would I do such a thing! Homework, the bane of my 11-year-old existence. Have I no compassion?
I’m hoping I’m a little bit compassionate, but the reality is homework works when we’re dealing with anxiety related concerns. Why is that?
- Present moment
We Need Practice
If my goal is to be able to do a Chin-up (it’s a true #lifegoal), then I need to increase the muscle in my biceps, lats, and back. Now, say I hire a personal trainer to help me 1x a week for 45-minutes. For that 45-minutes I work really hard, I sweat, cry, and push myself physically. My trainer would be proud.
Then I do nothing for a week, until we meet again.
Do you think after a couple of weeks I’ll be busting out those chin-ups?
Let’s think now about therapy. Usually a person meets with a therapist 1x a week for 45-minutes. If they work really hard in that session, that’s wonderful, but it’s probably not enough.
Just like with physical changes, psychological changes require regular practice. Homework is a tool to encourage practice.
I can’t predict when your anxiety or panic will happen. But we know that being able to tap into anxious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when they’re happening is more helpful than thinking about it a week later.
Sitting with an uncomfortable feeling in the moment it’s occurring is powerful. It confirms to you that you can tolerate uncomfortable things and it allows you to tune into deeper beliefs and unhelpful thinking that relate to your anxious feeling. Once we identify those beleifs, we can challenge them, and develop healthier ways of thinking.
Let me break it down with an example:
A client a few years ago shared with me how sitting uncomfortably in the present moment helped her identify a previously unknown core belief.
I brought my boyfriend home for my family’s annual Fourth of July BBQ and got really mad at him after he cleaned the dishes while I was watching a movie.
At first I thought I was mad because he wasn’t spending time with me, but I decided to sit with the discomfort and sort through my feelings. I realized I had a deeper belief that I was unlovable. Since [Ted] did the dishes, I was literally afraid my family would love him more than me.
She was not expecting to uncover that belief, but it made sense now why she felt so upset with her boyfriend. It wasn’t about being mad, she felt scared about her family’s love. If she had waited a week, I don’t know that she could have recognized that insight. The present movement is a powerful place to be, and learning to identify, sit with, and challenge our thoughts in the present moment is where our work occurs.
Tracking Patterns and Progress
For most people, being in an anxious moment means your thoughts are cluttered. Writing things down brings clarity to your thoughts. It also helps you identify patterns and track your progress in dealing with the anxiety.
- Patterns: In order to adjust your thinking and behaviors, you need to know what you’re thinking and how you’re acting. A written record of these patterns makes it easier to develop alternative ways of thinking and acting.
- Progress: Anxiety work is hard. Sometimes you have moments when you think you are not getting any better. Having a record lets so you can see how far you’ve come.
If you think about weight loss, you track progress by keeping a regular record of pounds and inches, so you can evaluate whether your program is working. It’s often hard to see big changes one week to the next, so you look at overall change and growth from Day 1 to the present. The same can be said with anxiety progress. Sometimes you’ll have an anxious day or an anxious response you aren’t proud of, that’s okay. We measure overall growth and if you’re working on your anxiety and tracking it, you will see progress.
Quality over quantity
A final note. We need to be careful with how we approach homework. I always assign “worry tracking” homework, and 9 times out of 10 my anxious clients sheepishly admit the next session that worried that I would be mad that they didn’t do their homework.
- I will not get mad if you don’t do your homework.
Maybe my homework didn’t fit, maybe your week was really stressful, maybe you just forgot. It’s okay, I’m not here to criticize you.
Overall, I want you to succeed and that does means continuing to do the hard work outside of session.
Exciting news though, research has found that in order to reduce symptoms the quality of homework done is more important than the quantity (Cammin-Nowak, et al., 2013; Schmidt & Woolaway-Bickel, 2000). So if you’re given three assignments, but you only do one, make sure you do a good job on that one assignment.
And when you do your homework, be proud of yourself. It is hard work. Keep track of it and you’ll soon start seeing progress.