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.