Have you ever found yourself feeling beat down by anxiety and wondered how to overcome it? In this post, we'll guide you through seven steps that will help you see your anxiety as an invaluable courier whose message is actually to help you grow. Once deciphered, anxiety can be seen as your greatest transformative ally.
Anxiety is defined as a feeling of alarm, worry, or fear associated with a threat that isn’t always actually present (Robinson et al., 2013). Ultimately, anxiety breeds mistrust and the presumed danger makes you experience or feel as though you’re under some sort of emotional or physical threat. In actuality, however, it’s likely a phantom threat – a threat that is not actually there but your life is operating under the false belief that it is.
Anxiety operates as a messenger. In prehistoric times, anxiety’s message was necessary when humans had to be on high alert due to navigating dangerous terrain and predators. In today’s world, however, anxiety’s messages of threat have largely shifted. Instead, those same panic-inducing life or death symptoms of anxiety have become attached to modern emotional or relationship fears – “Did I pick the right job? What if I make a mistake? What if I pick the wrong partner?” The ancient threat-radar system that once ensured physical survival by prompting action now causes psychological paralysis through anxiety.
Mind Shift From Obsolete Programming to Modern Growth Opportunity
To update from an archaic life-or-death programming regarding anxiety to seeing anxiety full of life growth opportunities requires a critical psychological pivot. This mental pivot clearly draws a distinction between the felt symptoms of anxiety and the meaning given to those symptoms. It is a mental shift or rewiring of the interpretation of anxiety from life-threatening to life-giving. In other words, What if the felt symptoms of anxiety could be seen as invaluable pointers to underlying conflicts or uncertainty that when resolved or accepted sets us free rather than paralyzes us? What if we accept that when we are no longer able to influence or change our circumstances, we more willingly accept the challenge to change ourselves?
How do we make this distinction? How do we begin to rewire a perceived threat to freedom?
1. Name It.
Anxiety thrives on the mind distortions of the absolutes of “All-or-Nothing” thought patterns. All or Nothing thinking creates the illusion of safety through a false sense of certainty or safety. This distorted thinking tricks one into believing, “If there’s an absolute right and wrong then a path without pain could be paved (Paul, 2019).”
This distorted thinking, however, creates an artificial dichotomy that breeds a false sense of internal reassurance. This type of thinking leads to distortions to maintain an impression of safety, which tends to keep people from taking healthy risks, learning from failure, or moving out of their comfort zones of alleged certainty into new places of curiosity. A healthier, more adaptive approach to the fear of the unknown is to acknowledge your fear, accept the uncertainty and create space for both while moving into the unknown nonetheless. Can safe spaces be created for both uncertainty and fear at the same time?
The ultimate mental health goal is to not only embrace uncertainty but learn to accept, live, and love in spite of it. To accept there will always be a complex mixture of both good and bad aspects to people, situations, and circumstances and also a lot of potential intimacy, growth, and new opportunities. Whenever you find yourself thinking in absolutes or extremes – always, never, if this, then that — know you’re under the spell of anxiety.
2. Embrace It.
Chronic anxiety causes you to abandon your everyday, here and now lived in emotional experience. This leads to a state of detachment, keeping you more on alert than feeling alive. What if, instead, anxiety could be seen as a messenger from something that requires your attention? What if the next time you experienced anxiety, you could become curious about this particular internal experience and what it was wanting to teach you.
Usually, anxious thoughts are simply the couriers for deeper messages that need to be delivered. For example, if you simply and only consider the anxious feeling about achievement, then this worry will drive your performance in an endless pattern of feeling not good enough unless you achieve more and more. You’ll be caught in a vicious cycle of performance versus taking note of how your underlying issues around self-worth and insecurity may be influencing your own behavior, how you perceive your partner, and how you respond to intimacy. Identifying these patterns of thought and behavior can then help you clarify what you need in a relationship and the best way to overcome relational challenges.
3. Explore It.
Meet anxiety with a compassionate curiosity. One way to do this is through the Buddhist practice of Tonglen (Chödrön, 2019; Paul, 2019). The Tonglen is an ancient technique where you breathe in the "unwelcome" pain, insecurity, inadequacy, or discomfort and breathe out the "desired" relief, contentment, fulfillment or comfort. This practice reverses the habitual avoidance of pain and rewires our brain on how to process discomfort by letting our brains know that we have the capability to hold and manage difficult emotions.
This practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. With this breathing technique, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and then sending out whatever will benefit them in the out-breath. This connection cultivates a sense of universal empathy, unity and strength, which is uniquely incompatible with the isolation and helplessness that is often rigidly maintained by anxiety. Detaching from this fixed, rigid position of fear and instead inviting in curiosity and contentment ultimately allows for transformation.
Exploring anxiety with curiosity creates space for transformation. Ignoring anxiety allows it to remain a shadow in your day, which acts as breeding ground for intrusive thoughts, a symptom of anxiety.
4. Interrupt It.
Intrusive thoughts are recurring, unsolicited, and persistent thoughts that cause suffering and take you out of the present moment. Intrusive thoughts want to be believed as absolute truths. They want to cause doubt and sow discord. At the core, intrusive thoughts are a mental addiction (Kelly & Kahn, 1994) and they operate as a barrier to prevent you from accessing more vulnerable feelings. Intrusive thoughts work under the false pretense that if you were to follow their orders, you could avoid the suffering and vulnerability inherent to being human, which simply isn’t true.
Learn to interrupt intrusive thoughts by widening the space between thoughts and your response to them (Frankl, 1985). In between the thought and the response, there is a gap, a space, a moment – find that moment and mind that gap. In that space, interrupt the intrusive thoughts and ask them to leave as they are uninvited from your brain. Continuing to do this will increase your ability to manage and un-invite the intrusive thoughts that are part of the anxiety that seeks to paralyze you and keep you from living your best life.
5. Interpret It.
First, look at the anxious or intrusive thoughts. This allows for cognitive diffusion (Clark, 2005) to take place which is about looking at the thoughts rather than from them. You are noticing the thought, rather than getting up by it or buying into it. In this way, you are creating that space, a separation between the thought and yourself. And, with this space or distance comes perspective to help begin to dismantle anxiety and reduce its credibility.
Once you have distance, allow yourself to experience the underlying emotion without judgment. Just simply observe the thought or emotion as much as possible as a bystander, a witness. Usually, there is an underlying feeling of incompetence, self-doubt, helplessness, or unhappiness and often these feelings cannot be avoided nor should they be. Instead, sit with these emotions and consider what message these feelings are trying to send you. Anxiety may be trying to tell you to only respond to the feelings, selling you the lie that you could resolve the surface level pain through more perseverance or more action or more external stimulus.
Reacting to surface-level anxiety will keep you on a hamster wheel as the underlying universal feeling of deficiency won’t be resolved through improving your external appearance—this can only be managed internally. The more you suppress, control, or manipulate external circumstances in order to feel better internally, the larger these internal feelings grow and the more energy they consume. It’s far more efficient to invite in the deeper emotions, experience them, and learn from them.
6. Sit With It.
Start to conceptualize your entire emotional experience as a moving river. You could either experience, witness, observe what emotions come down the stream until they pass or you could latch onto every one in a feeble attempt to control it or could turn your back and avoid looking at every experience or feeling that presents with some uncertainty, fear, or discomfort. You could do this until so many emotions accumulate and create an obstruction within and around you. To experience and observe emotions as they come and let them pass, you must believe you are safe to face whatever pain comes from them and, in doing so, experience the healing that comes from facing and processing the painful experiences throughout your life’s journey.
Sitting with or observing an emotion as it happens does not require an action or immediate solution. Instead, simply create space for it, become willing to experience it, and eventually process and move past it.
7. Check In.
If you refuse to experience an emotion directly or learn from what it has to teach you, it will only return in other ways (Paul, 2019) and present multilayered challenges later. What you don’t face, will only follow you until you do. This necessitates regularly checking in with yourself, processing how you’re feeling, and responding to it. You could do this through journaling, tuning into your body, or setting a check-in reminder on your phone. These are ways of getting comfortable emotionally attuning to yourself and making accurate and descriptive self-assessments.
Anxiety takes up energy and consumes space in your mind and body. Instead of fighting against anxiety or numbing out the feelings associated with anxiety, learn how it wants to transform you, fall away from you, and leave you freer to live and love.
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
Kelly, A. E., & Kahn, J. H. (1994). Effects of suppression of personal intrusive thoughts. Journal of personality and social psychology, 66(6), 998.
Pema Chödrön. (2019, October 25). How to Practice Tonglen. Lion’s Roar. https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/
Paul, S. (2019). The wisdom of anxiety: How worry and intrusive thoughts are gifts to help you heal. Sounds True.
McKnight, D. (2012). Tonglen Meditation’s effect on levels of compassion and self-compassion: A pilot study and instructional guide (Doctoral dissertation, Thesis Completed as Part of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. Available online at: https://www. upaya.org/uploads/pdfs/McKnightTonglenThesis. pdf).
Robinson, O. J., Vytal, K., Cornwell, B. R., & Grillon, C. (2013). The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 203.