Photo Courtesy of Jasa Muller
How to Redirect Anxiety
It’s easy to get anxious about the things we can’t control. For that matter, it’s easy to get anxious about the things we can control, too. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. A logical, if not necessarily easy, solution is to focus on what you can change. To get there, start with your thoughts, advise psychotherapist Jennifer Freed and mindfulness teacher Deborah Eden Tull. A major part of understanding anxiety, they explain, is being aware that we create the narratives in our heads. And if we are in charge of the stories we tell ourselves, we also have the power to flip them. According to this duo, paying attention to anxiety (as opposed to ignoring it) can help us make better choices about how to redirect it and how to work our way toward a more positive script.
For more on lightening our stress load: Listen to this week’s bonus podcast episode, featuring Freed along with psychiatrist Ellen Vora and doctor of chiropractic Andrew Kerklaan.
Fear is helpful in a moment of threat, when it helps us immediately fight, flee, freeze, or faint and play dead. Anxiety, on the other hand, is not helpful. Anxiety is a condition of being fearful of an imagined future or threat. It has become a blanket term—a catchall container for worry, fear, dread, anticipation, and raw nerves. Many of us are anxious, overwhelmed by life’s constant demands and input. But far too many of us are not aware that we have the inner resources to meet anxiety compassionately and skillfully.
Do any—or all—of these anxious thoughts keep you awake at night or make you feel distractible and panicky in the daytime?
“There isn’t enough time.”
“I won’t be good enough.”
“I’ll never make it.”
“What if they don’t like me?”
“Did I forget something? I can’t remember, but I think I did…”
“I won’t get enough sleep.”
“I don’t have enough money.”
“Will I get caught?”
“Something must be physically wrong with me.”
“I’ve taken on too much.”
“They’re going to find me out.”
Add to this your personal take on political news (regardless of affiliation), climate change, parental concerns (including worries about your own parenting or about taking care of aging parents), and you have endless options to spur or enhance your own anxiety.
Anxiety feeds on worst-case scenarios and accelerates with a lack of quiet time and the emphasis our culture puts on overdoing. It also enlarges with stimulating devices and substances, and it expands exponentially with a lack of sleep.
Anxiety is contagious. When we are nervous and worried, we pass it on to others through nonverbal cues like tone of voice and facial and physical gestures. This, along with less obvious factors like our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels, can influence others’ inner states. If you enter a room full of hyper-alertness and concern, others will immediately feel the tension.
The good news is that we have absolute choice in how we meet anxiety. The human mind is a meaning-making machine, and this machine is fueled by the attention we give to story. Returning to well-being has to do with both our ability to be more aware of the stories we create and our willingness to make conscious choices when anxiety gets triggered. The journey begins by learning to pay closer attention from present-moment awareness and becoming more courageous about nurturing peace.
Anxiety Dos and Don’ts
1. Don’t: Believe every story your mind feeds you. Do: Pay attention to your thoughts with curiosity, openness, and a willingness to question.
If we pay attention to how our mind operates, we notice that the conditioned mind has three favorite headlines: “There is something wrong.” “There’s not enough.” “There’s something I have to do.” Each of these stories can trigger anxiety if we are not aware that this is a pattern. It is not a requirement to believe these stories.
2. Don’t: Cast yourself as a victim waiting to be annihilated. Do: Change victim narratives; talk to others and yourself with more awareness and in ways that reflect your control over your own destiny.
Underlying our anxiety is the sense that something will happen to us and that we have very little agency over what it is and when or how it strikes. We try to identify each prospective source of our next difficulty, hoping to somehow be able to head it off or reduce its impact.
At the root of fearing things that have not yet happened is a sense of victimhood. Changing the narrative—casting yourself as an agent of your own destiny—is helpful in meeting this fear. This allows us to cease the habit of scanning for perceived threats and, instead, choose to attend to what is well and whole in our lives, moment by moment.
3. Don’t: Judge yourself when you experience anxiety or try to push it away. Do: Bring patience and compassion to the part of you that is anxious and treat this part of you with the welcome you would offer a good friend.
In other words, that which we resist persists. The key to lessening anxiety in our lives is to stop seeing it as a demon and to simply let it be a reminder that we have left present-moment awareness and that we can bring ourselves back.
Meditators know that it is wise to practice on sunny days so that we are ready for the rainy days. With anxiety, this means that it is important to become more familiar with peace as your natural resting state. Cultivating presence is about cultivating a friendship with ourselves. Having a true friend holding your hand as you navigate the ups and downs of life makes everything feel safer, easier, and more joyful.
Tips for Comforting Yourself in the Midst of Anxiety
Take a slow, deep breath and tell yourself, “It’s okay to be scared.” The deeper and more regulated your breath is, the less anxious you are.
Bring mindful curiosity to your experience of anxiety. Notice what happens with your body, mind, and emotions when anxiety is triggered, and invite yourself to be with the experience rather than resist it.
Remember that all states of mind and emotion are passing.
Ask yourself: “What possibly could help soothe the fear in this moment?” “Who could be a calming influence?” Or “How can I be a calming influence on myself?”
Make a list of the things you can do something about and put it aside.
Shake it out. Vigorous shaking with the intent of catharsis can work quite well as long as you drop the story of fear and focus on releasing the energy.
Look at beautiful and reassuring photos or listen to soothing music.
Read peaceful passages or books.
Take a moment to imagine yourself in a place, perhaps in nature, where you feel completely safe and at ease. In your imagination, take in the sounds, smells, and colors of this place and notice the impact on your body.
Better yet: Walk in nature, paying special attention to your feet on the ground.
Give yourself permission to (temporarily) drop all extras and attend to what is most essential. What is most important is inviting yourself back to ease and gentle okayness.
4. Don’t: Catastrophize or use ghost-story techniques to talk about your life. Do: Notice when you are feeding off of other people’s anxieties; pause and choose differently.
Have you ever noticed that when you tell a friend what you are really scared of and then they tell you what they are scared of, you both get more excitable? Catastrophizing or sensationalizing pending problems compounds distress. This is a great technique for sharing ghost stories but ratchets up the volatility of emotion in unhelpful ways when applied in real life.
5. Don’t: Be anxious about future anxiety. Do: Notice the part of you that is scared and take active steps to calm yourself down.
We also compound our agonies by precipitously being scared of or angry at our anxiety: “Oh no! I’m going to be anxious about that…” or “What an idiot I am to be worried about this.” How do you know this? Don’t do yourself the disservice of projecting a past response onto the future.
Instead of going down this road, notice which part of you is scared. Bring calming support with the same kindness you would offer to a frightened child. Fear does not respond well to criticism or dismissal. Cultivating a soft, nurturing inner voice is key: “It is okay to be scared about that.” “I see you; I see how scared you are.” “Everything is okay right now.” “You have everything you need to face this anxiety.”
Soothing ourselves takes tremendous fortitude when we are challenged daily with societal messages to do more, be more, and have more.
Tips for Reducing Anxiety in Daily Life
Be aware of your thoughts. Know that your conditioned mind is not you and that it has only the power of the attention that you feed it.
Listen to your body. When the first sign of anxiety arises, catch it in its early stages and reset.
Spend more time just being and doing nothing. We take in so much information each day that time for integration is needed regularly to support our nervous system.
Do not feed the overcrowding of time. Some spaciousness is essential to well-being.
Meditate. Just a few minutes each day can help you find your way back home to ease. Prioritize spending more time living in ease. It’s easier than you think.
6. Don’t: Attend to only the mental impact of anxiety. Do: Recognize and attend to anxiety’s effects throughout your body.
Notice how anxious thoughts show up as uncomfortable sensations in your body—sensations that most of us have gotten very good at ignoring. Work through and soothe the sensations by bringing yourself back to slower, deeper breathing and appreciative, gentle thoughts about how the now is exactly okay as it is. On the flip side, a vigorous workout can be the thing for restoring presence in the midst of anxiety. Either way: A calmer body can translate to calmer thoughts.
7. Don’t: Pressure yourself or others to CALM DOWN. Do: Aim for and focus on cultivating PRESENCE.
The opposite of anxiety is beyond calmness; it is presence. If we can slow down enough to be present to what is happening in the moment and to breathe deeply instead of lapsing into the shallow breathing that accompanies anxiety, we can cultivate a more peaceful interior.
Things to Avoid If You Are Feeling Anxious
Caffeine or uppers
People who peddle fear of the future
Social media negativity
Staying up late
Weighing hugely important life decisions
8. Don’t: Make important decisions from a place of anxiety. Do: Focus on soothing yourself or on getting the help you need to do so.
Our most competent mental and emotional resources are more “online” when we are centered and relaxed. Our best decisions and our wisest counsel to others come from reflective, thoughtful deliberation.
When we recognize anxiety as a reminder to change the things we can in the moment, to know which things we have no control of and to release our attention from them, and to get help when anxiety hangs on too tightly, we can befriend it rather than being afraid of it. We can learn to reside in the ease and well-being that is our birthright.
Psychotherapist Jennifer Freed, PhD, is a national trainer for parents, teachers, and students in social and emotional learning. She is the executive director of AHA!, which is dedicated to uplifting the lives of all teenagers and families. Freed is also a psychological astrologer; you can reach her at [email protected]
Deborah Eden Tull, the founder of Mindful Living Revolution, is a Zen meditation and mindfulness teacher, author, and activist. She is the author of Relational Mindfulness.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that 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.