Anxiety is no fun. But the good news is that the anxious moment will end, the anxious season will not last forever. You will figure out how to live in confidence, even if you are prone to anxious thoughts.
There are three ways that I have learned work really well to overcome anxiety. I got these three methods from Fearless in 21 Days, by Sarah E. Ball, and The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel.
- Greet it like an old friend
Our brains treat fear and anxiety as a threat. Therefore, what makes anxiety so bad is that your brain is immediately kicked into flight, fight or freeze as soon as anxiety shows up. You are then battling two negative stimulations. Rather than just being anxious, you are both anxious AND terrified of the anxiety.
In order to reduce the brain’s danger stress response to anxiety, greet it like an old friend. Friends are not a threat. Our brains warm to the thought of friendship. You’ve known your anxiety for a while, and really, it just wants to be heard. So give it a name.
I named my anxiety Margaret Anne. I gave it a name that connects to good memories from my childhood so that on some level, my brain already accepts this name as non-threatening. As actually a funny person. Thinking of this person actually warms my heart, and then I can view the anxiety as just a little annoyance from a friend whom I love very much.
Next, say hello. Acknowledge it. Accept it. I say, “Oh hello, Margaret Anne!”
Once your anxiety is named and greeted warmly, it reduces in weight. Your brain isn’t freaked out by it and stops treating it as a danger. Once you get past the danger stress response, you can overcome the anxiety itself.
2. Think of ridiculous ‘what if’s’
Anxiety utilizes fear. Mostly fear of the unknown. When you think about it, most of the things you are anxious about haven’t actually happened; they are just augmented possibilities. Anxiety is a list of big, scary ‘what if’s.’
I’ve learned to counter anxiety’s terrifying what-if’s with my own ridiculous ones. Then anxiety can laugh and disappear with a light wave.
If your brain is telling you, “What if this plane crashes and my whole family dies?” then counter with something like, “What if this plane stops like a bus at all my friends’ houses, picks them up, and we can all go to Paris and eat baguettes at the top of the Eiffel Tower together?” Or, “What if this plane flies so well that the pilot comes back to eat chocolate with me?”
If your brain is telling you “What if I fail?” you can counter with, “What if I do so well that I become instant internet famous?” or, “What if I win the Nobel Prize for my brilliance?”
If your brain is telling you, “What if I make no friends in this new group of people?” you can say, “What if I make so many friends that I have to spend all my money on their birthday presents?” or, “What if this new group of people is so nice we all decide to eat supper together every day?”
Counter each of your brain’s terrified “what-if’s” with your own ridiculous ones. Your anxiety will disappear.
3. Tell the story
There is something so powerful about story. Just as we learn concepts better in the context of story, our brains process memories successfully when it’s told in a story. When you can tell a story of the memory, even if it’s a horrible one, your brain can put it in the right place and not build walls up around it to protect you. Additionally, each time you tell the story of the terrible memory, it becomes less and less terrible.
My family went camping with a large group of friends: there were 8 trailers, 4 tents, and about 30 children. On the last night a terrifying windstorm came up, and we collapsed all the tents because plow winds threatened to tip over even the trailers. The adults ran around collecting bikes and chairs while the kids hunkered in the covered picnic shelter. Some kids were crying, some were shaking. Of course, some were oblivious. All of them were stress-eating the pile of snacks that had been brought into the shelter.
I sat beside two girls who were especially scared, one at a time, and had them tell me what happened. Of course, I was there and I knew exactly why they were worried, but I had them tell me the story. I would prompt them occasionally with, “And then what?” And they would tell me more. Sometimes I would ask, “Were you scared?” to connect an emotion to what they were feeling to help them process better. Things that can be named are less scary.
I got them to categorize what would blow away and what wouldn’t, asking, “Would a leaf blow away? Would a car blow away? Would a kite blow away? Would an elephant blow away? Would a house blow away? Did you blow away?” This got them to realize that they were actually safe, that they and the shelter were not going to blow away.
After they told me the story I asked a whole bunch of ridiculous “what-if’s” to get them smiling. “What if the wind blew us all the way to Disneyland? What if the wind brought a whole flock of swans to our campsite? What if we flew to your grandma’s house in the wind?”
Once they were smiling they weren’t scared anymore. The gale was no longer a threat. It was just a fact. Their brains had processed it properly in the form of a story.
Use these three tricks on yourself to denouement your anxiety. Or coach someone you know through their own anxiety. Greet it like a friend, confront it with ridiculous what-ifs, and tell the story. It works on kids. It works on adults. Anxiety does not last forever. Don’t give it the power to stay longer than the 10 minutes it takes to get through 1 or 3 of these methods.
You are stronger than the anxiety that plagues you!