Learning to Interrupt Anxious Thoughts
In her psychotherapy practice, Annie Armstrong Miyao helps people soothe their frayed nerves, manage their anxious minds, and tend to their hearts with compassion. She has seen her clients’ anxiety symptoms exacerbated during the pandemic; she notes that it’s hard to manage fear when you feel like a threat lurks around every corner. She’s not sure if that overwhelming feeling of vulnerability will completely disappear when the pandemic is over. So she’s been preparing her clients to build resilience long-term. That doesn’t mean solving every anxiety-inducing event or issue—there’s just not enough hand sanitizer in this world to wash away worry—but instead practicing techniques to soothe us when our minds start to race.
Simple Ways to Help with Anxiety
My family has pet bunnies: two tiny creatures who, even after years of us holding them, act as if we might eat them every time we approach. The other day I sat down with the fluffy white one, John, who recently received a haircut courtesy of my three-year-old daughter, who, perhaps in solidarity, also cut her own hair. As I held him against my chest, I could feel his little heart racing. Soaking in a moment of quiet in the sun, I measured my breath, smelling the lemon blossoms in the air. As John and I sat there, his heartbeat slowed, and his little haunches relaxed. I think a lot about our tender animal bodies: how we endure threat, upset, and trauma and how we recover.
As a therapist and a mother of three small children, I also think a lot about how I manage my own stress. I find my own center so that I can clearly detect, feel, and hold space for what comes up with my clients without mixing in my own emotional reaction. I try to soothe my own buzzing agita so that I don’t put it on my children. That is not to suggest that one should strive to be in some unattainable state of emotional neutrality. I am speaking more to the moments or days when we are moving through life unknowingly in a heightened state, when everything becomes a challenge, we get worn down, and it’s easy to come undone by any upset.
Name Your Anxiety
I believe the first piece of managing anxiety—or at least a good place to begin—is to develop an understanding of it.
Simply recognizing your anxiety as anxiety is a good first step: “Ah, it’s you, anxiety,” I say when I find myself agitated, abuzz, and worried about tending to seven things at once. “Anxiety, now is the time to rest,” I tell myself when I am kept awake in the middle of the night by a busy brain, my chest tight with tension.
Anxiety can stem from many sources. Those include fear of the unknown, desire for control, an overwrought nervous system, or simply having excess energy. If we can identify the root of what we’re feeling and observe anxiety as a defense mechanism in overdrive, we can start to parse out the actual level of threat we’re facing. For example: Getting lunch on the table does not have the same stakes—nor does it require the same intensity—as responding to one of my kids falling from the monkey bars. If I’m feeling stressed about making lunch and reacting to that experience as if one of my kids has just fallen from the monkey bars, I can learn to recognize that anxiety, rather than the experience itself, is what’s shaping how I’m feeling and behaving. If I can recognize that, then I can create just the tiniest bit of space from the feeling. Maybe enough to take a breath and tend to myself.
Once we understand anxiety and how it’s working in us (or against us), we can create some space to remind ourselves that we have some agency over our own experience. We can hold ourselves gently and practice being present. I do not apply this to a moment when we are actively being traumatized; this is for the moments when we cannot slow down our thoughts, when our fear is stopping us from doing things that bring us pleasure, or when we are exhausted by our own internal engine. My favorite ways to slow down—and help my clients slow down—are derivatives of mindfulness and creative practices.
Orient yourself to the current moment. There are many ways to do this, but here are some of the ones I recommend:
If we are lost in the future or past and find ourselves spinning, we can get grounded in the present sensory experience. Name five things you see, five things you hear, and a few things you can smell. Even simpler: When you take a moment to hold the bunny in the backyard, really take in the moment. Notice what you see, smell, and feel.
Try to hyperfocus on an object in view, pulling your attention back to the object if your thoughts spin away.
Ritualize a mundane daily activity. Notice the way the toothbrush feels in your hand; notice the way the toothpaste smells. Slow way down and just brush your teeth, doing and thinking of nothing else.
Practice imagining yourself in a real or made-up place where you feel safe and calm. Write about this place, daydream about it, draw it. Notice what happens to you when you spend time imagining yourself in a place where you feel safe and calm. Go back to this place when you’re feeling spun out.
Imagine your intrusive thoughts as trains going by on a train track: You are standing on the platform, watching your thoughts come and go like trains pulling into the station and leaving. Don’t get on the trains; just watch them go by.
Draw your anxiety, fear, or worry. Flesh out those feelings as if they were characters in a story. It helps you understand the feelings more fully and gain some objectivity, which ideally helps you be less overwhelmed when in the grip of your fear. We also do the same for feelings of peace, safety, and joy: What do they look like? How do they speak? How do they move?
Sometimes tending to ourselves can be as simple as noticing when we feel good. When in doubt, splash some cool water on your face; remind yourself that in this moment, you are safe; and take a deep breath. Treat yourself with compassion and gentleness. Now is not the time to for self-flagellation. The bunny in my arms did not calm down because I shouted at him or forced him to do it. Treat yourself as you would treat that little bunny who is scared, uncertain, and overwhelmed: Take a breath, feel the sun on your face, be gentle, and reassure yourself, “In this moment, I am safe.”
Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles–based psychotherapist, writer, and mother of three.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.