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Oct 21, 2019

163: Ask David: Anxiety, Dreams, Cyclical Negative Thoughts, Secrets of Selling, Exposure, and more

Can you treat anxiety without meds?

How do you interpret dreams?

Are negative thoughts cyclical?

How can I get over anxiety when selling?

How does exposure work?

Will you teach on the East Coast again?

Hi! We’ve had tons of great questions from listeners like you. Here’s the first:


Hi Dr. Burns,

I would love to talk to you!!!

I have been going to a wonderful counselor for several years, and he is the one who recommended your book. My question is how can you overcome anxiety without taking medicine?

I have been on a very low dose medicine for years and would love to discontinue but when I try the anxiety seems to come back.

Thank you.


Hi Lisa,

Thank you for your email! This is one of my favorite topics, since I’ve personally had at least 17 different anxiety disorders that I’ve had to overcome. That’s why I love treating anxiety. Whatever you’ve had, I can say, “I’ve had that too, and I know how it sucks! And I can put you on the road to recovery, too!”

Did you read When Panic Attacks, or one of the earlier books? The written exercises would be the way to go, I think.

You will find more than 40 methods in that book. Write back if you have questions after reading it. Focus on one specific moment when you are anxious, and do a Daily Mood Log, as illustrated in Chapter 3.

You can also listen to the free Feeling Good Podcasts on anxiety. Go to my website,, and click on the Podcast tab. There, you’ll find a list of all the podcasts, with links. In the right hand panel of every page, you’ll find the search function. You can type in “anxiety,” or “social anxiety,” and so forth, and all the relevant podcasts and blogs will pop right up. You can also sign up in that same right-hand panel of every page so you’ll receive all the new podcasts, along with the show notes.

In addition, withdrawal effects are pretty much inevitable when going off of benzodiazepines, if that is the type of medication you are taking. These are the drugs most often prescribed for anxiety, like Valium, Librium, Ativan, Xanax, and so forth. Typically, the withdrawal, which typically involves insomnia and increased anxiety, take several weeks to wear off.

Your medical doctor can guide you in this. I cannot advise you about medications in this forum, so make sure you check with your doctor!


Question #2. How can you interpret dreams?

Hello, Dr. Burns.

I am terrified that this may be the most boring question you have ever received, but, I’ll press on none the less.

I often experience very vivid dreams after listening to your podcasts. In fact, I recently dozed off after listening to one of your podcasts on procrastination (#75) and forgot to turn off my phone. In my dream I was in my childhood house and could hear you talking away in some far corner of the house and I was really getting quite annoyed and angry.

I really wanted to find you to tell you to shut up, but I couldn’t get the words out.

When I awoke, podcast #77 was playing, which seems to explain some of my unconscious hostility. I struggle with most of my relationships and don’t really want to deal with all the hard work I have to do to improve them.

So, there you have it!

Thanks for listening to me and all your Herculean efforts on behalf of all those in the struggle to grow.


Hi Mike,

I explain how dreams function, and give an example with my dream that I had a broken jaw!

Question #3. Are Negative Thoughts cyclical?

David, I have a question about our strong attraction or inclination to negative thoughts.

Are our psychological processes cyclical? People seem to recycle the same negative thoughts for years. Even if we produce a strong alternative thought or reattribution it may not be a default choice the next time. How can we make the alternative/ positive thoughts a conscious choice?



Hi Rajesh:

Negative Thoughts are not cyclical for the most part, but are an inherent part of our human nature. The podcast on fractal psychotherapy might be useful, since the same Negative Thoughts will tend to come back over and over throughout your life. And once you have learned how to combat those thoughts, you can use the same techniques to smash the thoughts whenever they pop back into your mind.

The written exercises I describe in my books, like the Daily Mood Log, are extremely helpful, even mandatory, in building new brain networks and strengthening them through repeated practice.

Bipolar manic-depressive illness is a little different, and it can be quick cyclical. (David will briefly explain this.)

Thanks Rajesh for yet another great question!


Question #4. I’m in sales. How do I combat my Negative Thoughts about each person I approach?

Hi David,

I have been struggling with anxiety for the last 18 months and recently faced up to the fact I have also been suffering from depression. And then I discovered your podcasts.

I have been spending a lot of time on the episodes I believe I can benefit from the most. I have found your solutions to be the most beneficial I have come across. Thank you for sharing your ideas and techniques with all of us!

A couple of questions—How would you advise constructing a work day to reduce anxiety? I work in sales and feel anxious before every phone call or visit I encounter, and the anxiety can be for reasons that seem to be related solely to each sales encounter on individual basis! And my anxiety will grow as the day goes on.

My second point would be, would there be a benefit in monitoring positive thoughts and feelings throughout the day, like happiness and hopefulness, rather than negative feelings?

Hi Rudi,

I’ve done a lot of sales work, including door-to-door sales when I was young. When I was 8 years old, I sold show tickets door to door. When I was a teenager, I sold Fiesta Chips, Cosmo’s Cock Roach Power, tick powder for dogs, and For Econoline Vans door to door in Phoenix. So, I feel a soft spot in my heart for everyone involved in sales! In fact, I’m still involved in sales! But these days I’m selling happiness, self-esteem, and intimacy.

I think it could be useful to do a written Daily Mood Log on the anxiety you feel before one of your calls. I think you will find there are certain themes that are common to each call, such as fears of rejection, disapproval, or failure. Once you’ve dealt with these fears successfully, I think they will help in all of your sales encounters. If you send me a partially filled out Daily Mood Log, perhaps Rhonda and I could provide more specific tips on how to crush your Negative Thoughts. If you listen to Rhonda’s work on performance anxiety, you may find it extremely helpful.

In addition, the Five Secrets of Effective Communication are the keys to successful sales. I used to think that you had to sell yourself, or your product, which is rarely true. I learned that the key is to form a warm relationship with your customers. David will explain what he learned from his mother, who sold women’s clothing part-time at a department store in Phoenix.

Thanks, Rudi, I hope to hear more.

Question #4. Why and how does exposure for anxiety work?

Hi Dr. Burns,

I am a big fan and believe that you are the greatest living psychologist of our time. I have seen you in person and hear your recent PESI presentation (link).

Quick question, when exposure is used to get rid of anxiety, what do you think is the mechanism in the brain? It works paradoxically, instead of strengthening a neuro-network it extinguishes it. Any ideas how.

Thanks for your time, and again I have learned so much from you in my over 30-year career, thank you for that also.

Sincerely, Dr. Mark

Hi Dr. Mark,

With your permission, will include this on an upcoming Ask David on my Feeling Good Podcast, but I think you discover a couple things during exposure:

  1. When you stop running away and confront the monster, you discover that the monster has no teeth, so you go into enlightenment. This is the basis of Buddhism and the teachings in the Tibetan book of the dead.
  2. During exposure, you also discover that after a while the anxiety just kind of wears out, dwindles, and disappears. The brain simply cannot continue creating anxiety for prolonged periods of time, especially when you are doing everything you can to make it as intense as possible.
  3. You discover that you can, in fact, endure the anxiety and survive, and that you do not have to “escape” from the feeling of anxiety via avoidance.

One other thing that is important is that I treat anxiety with four models, not one: 1. The Motivational Model; 2. The Hidden Emotion model; 3. The Exposure Model; and 4. The Cognitive Model. All play vitally important and unique roles in the treatment of anxiety. Exposure alone is NOT a treatment for anxiety, just one tool among many that can be helpful, and often incredibly helpful, as you’ll see in the upcoming podcast on the treatment of Sara, a woman struggling with severe OCD for more than 20 years.

Great question! Hope to catch you in one of my upcoming in-person / online workshops!

Thanks, David

Mark’s reply and a brief final question

Hi Dr. Burns,

Yes, of course you have my permission to use my question! Also, I do understand your impressive approach to treatment (not just exposure), and again it is genius. I also love that you see the connection between Buddhism and cognitive restructuring, where as Dr. Beck only went as far back as Socrates and the Greek Stoic philosophers. I don’t know if you ever read the Dhammapada (best translation I found is Eknath Easwaran) as it clearly states that our life is shaped by our mind, and that our feelings follow our thoughts just like a cart follows the ox that pulls it.

Thanks again! Will you be coming to the East coast again soon?

Hi again, Mark,

Yes, I’ll be coming to Atlanta for a four-day intensive in November! Check my workshop tab at for more information. (


David D. Burns, M.D. & Rhonda Barovsky, Psy.D.