At its worst, anxiety can feel paralyzing and interfere in every aspect of life.
If you have tried ignoring or fighting it, you know that this is not just ineffective - it makes anxiety worse. Responding with more fear, worry, anger, or frustration inadvertently feeds it. Continuing to respond the same way will lead to the same result: more anxiety.
When we experience overwhelming negative emotions in the lower brain, our higher brain can become hijacked, leading to emotional reasoning. These unhealthy, unhelpful, or false thoughts, like other cognitive distortions, can feel like facts. If they’ve been repeated enough, thoughts such as, “Shoot, here it is again, it’s just going to get worse and worse,” or, “Oh no! Not my anxiety! I can’t stand it!” or, “Everyone knows how anxious I am!” become automatic and feel natural. This can trick us into believing there is no other possible way to look at our experience of anxiety. If we continue spiraling into it, in addition to anxiety we may feel embarrassed, powerless, and hopeless.
The single most important factor for managing anxiety once it starts is our relationship with it. View it as an enemy, and it will fight to distress or exhaust us. Try to view it as a nuisance to ignore, and the lower brain will keep poking at us with distress. Distractions may help temporarily, but if the belief that anxiety will take over and take us down remains unchallenged, it will.
If anxiety itself caused more anxiety, everyone would react the same way to it. As with other forms of distress, it’s our judgments about anxiety that cause it to spiral. Our judgments stem from beliefs which are rooted in many things including genetic tendencies, our life experiences, and the history of their interactions. Repeated thought patterns may be well-traveled pathways, but they're not hard-wired. (For more information about rewiring or changing thought patterns, click here.)
Maintaining the same unhelpful beliefs about anxiety is incompatible with a new, healthy perspective and relationship with it. Ask yourself how you would like to respond to anxiety. Imagine yourself feeling calm, noticing one of the warning signs such as a rapid heartbeat or quick, shallow breathing. Imagine yourself responding with acceptance, calmness, and confidence. What beliefs do you think would likely be present in order for you to feel this way? A reliable place to start is to separate the facts about anxiety from our negative judgments, and then to look for new, healthier thoughts to have about the facts.
Four important and simple facts about anxiety to be aware of are: (1) it serves a useful and important purpose in protecting us from danger by preparing the body to fight or flee, (2) it can be triggered when no actual danger exists, (3) we can use our higher brain, our rational thoughts, to calm it, and (4) calming it does not mean making it go away.
Keeping these facts in mind while following the steps below will improve your relationship with anxiety, and it will no longer feel like an enemy to fight. Your new, healthier response to anxiety will include acceptance, understanding, calmness, encouragement, confidence, and empowerment. The goal is not to make it go away, because anxiety is with us for a very good reason – to keep us safe. The goal is to learn how to manage it effectively so that it no longer interferes in your life.
These steps may feel strange at first due to unfamiliarity. When we learn, we establish new thought patterns. This requires repetition and purposeful effort, which includes tolerating the initial strangeness of it until it starts to feel more natural. Each step is important for the process.
1 – Check in with yourself.
Frequent checking in with yourself throughout the day will increase your awareness of any anxiety before it has a chance to hijack your brain. Checking in can be done in just a few minutes. Take a pause, a step back, a deep breath. Check your heartrate and your breathing. Check your muscles for tenseness. Check in with your thinking. Anxiety brews beneath our level of awareness if we are not paying attention.
2 – Stick with the facts.
Identify whatever you notice without judgment. “Oh no, I can’t stand this!” or “My heart is racing! I’m going to die!” are false judgments. Focusing on the facts may sound like, “I’m noticing some anxiety - a fast heartrate and shallow breathing. This is a normal and safe body response to anxious thoughts.” Notice the level of anxiety as it is, without catastrophizing or future-telling. The next steps will help with this.
3 – Practice self-validation and self-compassion.
Keep your focus on the here and now, in the very moment as you are experiencing it. Acknowledge past distress, but avoid projecting this into the future. You can’t tell the future, and if you are following these steps, you are catching anxiety early and responding in a new way to the initial discomfort in order to change the outcome. If you’re used to resisting anxiety, this may feel very new and strange at first.
Self-validation is about acknowledging your feelings. If someone tells us to calm down, it feels invalidating and dismissive, yet we tend to do this to ourselves instead of acknowledging feelings that are present. Taking a moment to change dismissiveness or catastrophizing to validation has a profoundly powerful effect. It can be as simple as thinking, “I’m noticing some anxiety, and it feels uncomfortable. I feel my heartbeat starting to race. I’m feeling distracted and restless.”
Self-compassion is about being accepting and kind to yourself, instead of being critical. “Anxiety is something many people experience. I’m not alone with this. It’s not a reflection of my character and it doesn’t mean I’m weak or a failure. People can be strong and healthy, and still experience anxiety sometimes.”
4 – Consciously calm your body to help your mind relax.
Deep breaths and relaxed muscles are incompatible with an anxious mind. If your reaction to shallow quick breaths and muscle tension has been to focus on how bad they are, how it feels like they’ll last forever and lead to more problems, you’ve inadvertently been feeding the fire. Focus on slowing your breathing down and relaxing your muscles. This sends signals to your mind to calm down.
5 – Use calming and encouraging self-talk.
Recall the imagined calm response to anxiety and the beliefs that are likely supporting it. Self-talk has to be believable because we can’t knowingly lie to our own brain. If saying, “Everything will be fine,” is not believable, helpful self-talk may sound more like, “This is temporary. I’ve had this before and it’s gone away,” or, “In this moment, I am safe,” or, “I’ll do my best to get through this in a healthy way.” When you calm just enough to tune into your rational healthy part, you may recall a saying or mantra that has been helpful to repeat or meditate on.
Strengthening and Maintaining Your New Relationship
Healthy relationships require thoughtful effort. Building feelings of trust and comfort takes time. Waiting for a problem to start and expecting the desired response to automatically be there initially is unrealistic. Most people who give up on changing thought patterns using cognitive behavioral therapy skills (CBT) assume it doesn’t work for them because of the strangeness of thinking differently while the old unhealthy emotional reasoning is still present. This is called cognitive-emotive dissonance, and in order to make these positive changes, it must be tolerated.
If you think of a time you learned to do something differently, you’ll notice it felt weird at first, but became more natural with practice. We do this all the time – driving an unfamiliar car, using a new computer or phone, or starting a new job. The difference with these is that there’s a more immediate, tangible reward for staying the course. When we purposefully change our thought patterns because we’ve identified old ones as unhealthy, the rewards may initially be subtle and gradual, however staying the course can be life-changing.
Strengthening new patterns of thinking that support this healthy relationship occurs when we pay close attention to our thinking, and practice repeatedly shifting our focus to healthier thoughts. If we neglect to do this, the old, familiar, well-traveled pathways will remain strong.
Maintaining a healthy relationship with anxiety becomes very easy, because it’s a helpful part of our life experience, watching out for our safety like a trusted old friend. The trust is mutual because it no longer gets out of control - we know how to help it calm. At this point, anxiety becomes a familiar friend we can embrace fearlessly.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com