Dealing with Anxiety: Using the Strength of an Anxious Mind to Calm Anxiety

Dealing with Anxiety: Using the Strength of an Anxious Mind to Calm Anxiety

An anxious mind is a strong, powerful mind, as anyone who has tried to rationalise themselves out of anxiety will tell you. An anxious mind can outrun, outpower and outwit rationality and logic any day of the week. What if you could harness the strength and power of that fiercely protective mind and use it to work for you instead of against you? 

Anxiety exists on a spectrum and we all experience it at some level. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. Anxiety is a very normal response from a strong, healthy brain that thinks there might be trouble about, and instantly responds by making us stronger, faster, more powerful, more alert versions of ourselves.

Like any good thing though, too much is too much. When the brain is oversensitive to threat, it puts us on high alert even when there is no need to be. This is when anxiety becomes intrusive and hard to live with. It turns from the gentle security guard who shows up when needed, to the crasher who steals the joy, tells stories about nameless dangerous things, and cozies up beside you so close it’s hard to breathe, think and be.

Why is anxiety so powerful?

Anxiety is there to keep us safe. It is a call to action to fight or flee so we can move through danger. It’s there to keep us out of the way of trouble so the signals it sends have to be strong. The problem is that those signals aren’t always accurate. Anxiety is instinctive and automatic. It’s been practising its moves for thousands of years. That’s the thing about evolution – sometimes it works for us, sometimes it makes us vulnerable to anxiety. 

Anxiety was never meant to get in our way, but rather, to get us out of the way of danger. The part of the brain that drives anxiety thinks it’s doing the right thing. The more we fight it, the harder it will work to convince us that there’s danger and that we need to act. 

So if fighting an anxious mind doesn’t work, what then?

We know that an anxious mind is a strong, powerful mind. What if we could harness the strength and power of that fiercely protective mind and use it to work for us instead of against us? As strong as a mind can be in its experience of anxiety, it can be equally strong in calming it. Anxiety might still show up, but rather than appearing as the wolf at the door and sending your fiercely protective brain into a panic, it can be greeted more in the way of, ‘Oh hey there – I know you. Take a seat over there.’

We know that over time, mindfulness works to build and strengthen a brain against anxiety, but there are aspects of mindfulness that can be used in the midst of anxiety to find calm. With practice, they can be called on at will to turn down the volume on anxious thoughts and feelings, and any other symptoms that anxiety tends to keep company with. 

But go gently …

Changing mindset involves small, repeated steps. Each step builds on the one before it, and this takes time. That’s okay though – there’s no hurry. Remember, your mind has been doing what it’s doing for a while and it will take a while to unlearn its habits.

Those habits have had a good reason for being there. Anxious thoughts and anxious feelings keep us alive. They put us on standby to deal with anything that gets in the way. It’s going to take some convincing to show them that actually, the only thing getting in the way, are them.

Don’t try to do all of these strategies at once. Trying to keep a hold of so many different things will make your mind do the equivalent of throwing its hands in the air and walking away. Instead, choose one at a time and do it for a short while at a time. Small steps, but important ones. If you try to do them all at once, there is the risk of it feeling too hard. When things feel difficult, it is normal to run back to what’s familiar. The way around this is to go gently. Here’s how …

Dealing with Anxiety – Using the power of an anxious mind. 

Anxiety is the power of the mind against the mind. That power is your greatest asset – and it’s an exceptional one. Now to claim it back so you can use it in a way that will build and strengthen you.

  1. Be present. Be where you are, not where your anxiety wants to take you.

    Anxiety works by using a solid collection of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘maybes’ to haul even the strongest, bravest mind from a present that feels manageable and calm, to a future that feels uncertain and threatening. Experiment with staying fully present in the moment. Anchor yourself by opening up your senses. What do you see, feel, hear, taste, know? Stay with what is actually happening, rather than what might happen. If this feels uncomfortable, put a time limit on it, let’s say, two minutes to start with. Spend this time fully experiencing the world as it is around you now.

    Every time you do this, you will be strengthening your ability to pull back from the anxious thoughts that steal you away from the safety and security of where you are. Try to get into a regular practice each day, for however long you can – two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes – it doesn’t matter. There’s no right amount, but the longer the better. The main thing is to keep doing it. The brain strengthens and rewires with experience, and this is an experience that is so strengthening and healthy, your brain will love for it. 

    Try: ‘Right now, I’m here and I’m safe. I see the sky. I feel the breeze against my skin. I hear my footsteps’

  2. Be patient. Don’t be in a hurry to change your thoughts and feelings.

    Thoughts and feelings will come, they will stay, and then they will go. No thought or feeling stays forever. Be patient and know that whatever you are feeling, or whatever you are thinking, it will pass.

    Experiment with being fully present, without needing to push away any thoughts or feelings. There is no anxious feeling and no anxious thought that is stronger than you. However big they feel, you will always be stronger and more resilient. Be patient. Be open. Be curious. See what wisdom lies at the end of your anxious thoughts and feelings if you stay with them, rather than fight them. Let them stay for long enough to realise that you have no need for them today. 

     Try: ‘An anxious thought. That’s okay – you’ll leave when you’re ready.’

  3. Be an observer. Watch your thoughts and feelings without engaging with them. 

    Anxiety has a way of drawing you in and making you engage with every anxious thought that comes in thinking distance of you. It’s exhausting! Experiment with standing back and watching your thoughts as an observer, knowing that when they are ready, they will pass. Sometimes we need to engage with thoughts and feelings, and sometimes we need to stand back and wait for them move on. Try imagining your thoughts and feelings as a bubble, and then watch them float by.

    Experiment with letting them be, without needing to change them, understand them, or talk yourself out of them. Imagine them hovering in the air around you, without becoming a part of you. Just let them be, without holding on too tightly. When they are ready to go, let them go. Think of it like this – rather than standing in the middle of a thunderstorm, trying to change the direction of the wind, imagine yourself watching that storm through a window, knowing that it will pass. 

    Try: ‘There’s a thought about what might happen if it rains on the holiday. Look at that. Didn’t know that was there.’

    ‘A feeling about going to the interview. Interesting.’

  4. Trust your anxiety. Know that it won’t hurt you. 

    There are a lot of reasons anxiety feels so awful. Two of the big ones are because it comes with a bunch of ‘unknowns’, and because the physical feelings don’t make sense. A curious, strong, thoughtful mind will try to put these feelings and thoughts in context, because the idea that they are free-floating and not attached to anything feels even worse. You might find yourself wondering if your physical symptoms are a sign of something more serious. You might wonder if that ‘bad feeling’ means something bad is actually going to happen. You might worry about the worry (this is common with anxiety) – what’s driving it, how to you stop it.  that your anxiety isn’t a sign of something bigger. This is hard to do but the more you practice it, the stronger you will be at calming your anxious thoughts and not believing the messages they contact. Anxiety is there as a warning, not a prediction. Feel the security and safety of what that means for you.

    Try: ‘My heart feels as though it is pounding through my chest. This is anxiety. It’s not a symptom of something bigger. I’m safe.’

  5. Trust yourself. You are strong. You are resourceful. You will cope. You always have.

    Trust that whatever happens, you can deal with it – because you can, you absolutely can. This might not feel real for you at first, and that’s okay. Go with it and see what the experience has to give you. This is a learning process and it will take time. Underlying all worry, anxiety and stress is fear that we won’t be able to cope. Fear of failure, for example isn’t fear of the failure but fear that you won’t cope with the failure. Ditto for rejection, making a wrong decision – anything. You will cope. You’ve proven it over and over. See what happens when you move towards trusting that. If it doesn’t feel real, pretend until it does. From the outside it will look the same anyway.

    Try: ‘Whatever happens, I will cope. I always have.’ 

  6. Meet your anxiety where it is, without needing you or it to be different. 

    It’s paradoxical, but sometimes, the more we try to change something the more energy we give it, and the more it stays the same. (Keep telling yourself not to think of pink gorillas. Try really hard not to think of them. Keep telling yourself to stop thinking of pink gorillas. See how that works?) Anxious thoughts take up a lot of precious head space. They draw on our feelings, focus, thoughts and imagination. The more we try to make sense of them and control them, the more they feed into anxiety. Instead, experiment with being with your anxiety as it is, without needing to change it. Acceptance doesn’t make a feeling stronger or more enduring. It stops giving it energy.

    What you focus on is what becomes powerful. The more you focus on something, the more it flourishes and expands.Try to be with your anxiety without pushing against it. Don’t force it to go or to be different than it is. This will let you understand your anxiety more, which will bring it out of the dark and into a space in which you can deal with it.

    This isn’t easy, but it’s powerful. Try it in little bits and work up from there. Start with letting your feelings be as they are for two minutes, or however long feels okay for you. Sit with them, without needing them to be different. Then if you want to, after that you can give them your attention and try to turn them into something else. When you can, let them be as they are again. See how this feels, then when you’re ready, work up to longer.

    Try: ‘I am having a worried thought. My hands are clammy. My mouth is dry. This is anxiety]. And that’s okay.’

  7. Clear your filter.

    Messages and experiences from the past have a way of changing the filter through which we look at the rest of the world. This is the way it works for all of us – anxiety or no anxiety.

    Try to approach experiences and moments as though you are experiencing them for the first time. Even if you have been in many similar situations before, none of them will be exactly like this one. Notice the differences between what is and what has been. With every experience, you are changed somehow – wiser, braver, stronger, more capable, sometimes more anxious, more worried, more fearful. Be open to the new possibilities that can come from this new experience, because that’s what it is – a new experience.

    For example, if you have had a painful breakup, there might be a tendency to hold back from loving wholeheartedly again. New people and new relationships might feel risky. This is completely understandable, and staying away is a move that will keep you safe, but it will close down the possibilities and promise that are waiting for you to find them. Growth happens when we open ourselves up to ‘what is’, rather than letting new experiences be coloured by ‘what has been’. 

    Try: ‘This is a brand new experience. I’m open to discovering what will unfold for me here.’

    ‘This reminds me of all the times I’ve had to meet new people. These people are different. I’m different. This experience is different.’

  8. Surrender. Let go of the need for certainty, even if it’s just for a moment.  

    The future is always uncertain, so anxiety has a pretty easy time of causing a stir. Not everything will go to plan and that’s okay, but the more we try to control things, the more we tend to realise how little control we have. This will feel uncomfortable at first, so start with surrendering to the uncertainty for a small amount of time. Experiment with letting go of needing to control the moment, the future, the past, or the people around you. The more you are able to lean in to your uncertainty and tolerate it, the less power it will have over you.

    Try: ‘I don’t know what will happen if I have to change plans. And that’s okay.’

And finally …

Think of these strategies like drops in a bucket. The first time you try them, you might not notice much. Same with the second time, and the third time. Eventually though, the more you experiment with them and the more you use them, the more capacity you will have to harness the strength of your wild and beautiful mind and make it work more in your favour. You will learn that you will always have what it takes and that anxiety is a feeling that comes and then it will go, just like a bad weather day. You’re a fighter – you’ve been fighting anxiety and winning for a while now. You’re strong, brave and resilient and you have everything you need inside you to deal with anything that might stand in your way. 

159 Comments

Jonathan A

I’ve been trying to get grip on my anxiety for decades. I didn’t realize how severely depressed I was as a child and teenager until I started trying to deal with anxiety as an adult. I believe that suffering through years of sexual and physical abuse traumatized me, destroyed my self esteem and trained my brain to think something bad was coming and it usually did. I developed bad social anxiety, afraid to speak to people individually or publicly. Anxiety has held me back in a lot of ways and I’ve spent years trying to figure out why I get so nervous when there’s nothing to be afraid of-I often wake up nervous and immediately have to start calming myself down. I have been able to overcome it and control it many times with breathing and positive thoughts spoken aloud or just feeling the panic then talking it down in my head. I’ve been able to rebuild myself over the years and now being single at 39, and just recently getting my heart broken, I don’t feel afraid of relationships but social anxiety still creeps in sometime. I have made huge progress over the years and am very sociable now instead of guarding myself from everybody. Articles like this help give me tools and ideas that I can use to help my individual situation. It takes time but I know if I continue to work on it I can make lasting changes because I already have.

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cici

I woke up this morning with my usual feelings of anxiety. I have developed small stupid senseless fears all because of anxiety. I LOVE this article! Thank you for sharing, Karen!! It has helped reassure that anxiety is nothing but an uncomfortable feeling. Due to my anxiety i now have a fear of my heart beating fast, specifically when i am done eating a heavy meal or if i am alone in a place. (Stupid right!?) i try meditation and this does help, but it still happens from time to time. I feel trapped in my own mind.. i don’t get panic attacks often, and when j feel one coming i talk myself out of it.. or i try to embrace it… but it is such a scary state of mind to be in. Do you have any suggestions???

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Alina

I’m not the one who wrote the article but I overcame that fear. I just told myself my heart will race and speed up at any given and unknown time in an event or task that makes me downright anxious. If your heart does start to race then don’t let it get to you!! Even out your breathing by taking deep breaths in and out for 5 minutes. Calm yourself with positive thoughts of things you’re excited to do or hobbies you enjoy doing. Most important thing to know: It. Will. Pass. -no matter what or how long, it’ll pass and you WILL be okay. I’m obviously no expert but this helped me. I don’t know if it will work for you but I hope some help will come out of it for you.

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Ofentse

I only just read this now and it was so connecting because at some point when see you people doing their mundane you think that you’re the only who feels crazy or maybe is not fine, but in reality you’re perfectly it’s just a state of mind and you just to get control over it. I thought I was alone too, and that I won’t be fine because it’s so fast and never ending how it controls your mind. Reading comments and commenting too is really helpful for me, and I hope for others too. It might be on a single mind, I get it but talking to people who know the feeling can help a lot because they can relate. Thank you Karen and all who are part of this.

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Udokanma

I was married at a very tender age and was maltreated, abused and unloved. Later became a widow with four children. I lived on a very small income. No help and later became anxious. When I started noticing instabilities in my body. I became afraid of developing High blood pressure and insanity. This lasted for years. But thanks to God that my fears never prevailed. But that anxiety reappeared and I want it to go entirely.

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Eileen Mulcahy

This is a very helpful article. It makes sense of anxiety and explains it really well. It is a very good resource for those who struggle with anxiety. Thank you very much for making it simple as this will help lots of people. I, for one, will pass this on to others who will surely benefit from its wisdom. Eileen Mulcahy Ireland

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Pamela

This is an amazing way to be comforted full of positivity and hope practice makes perfect they say thanks so much for this reassurance greatly appreciate

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JrGirl88

I experience anxiety when driving. Driving used to be my favorite thing to do, it calmed me down, it gave me alone time, I could be a star singing along to the radio… it was great! A couple of weeks ago I had a medical issue while in the car with my son. I managed to get him where he needed to go and drove myself to the hospital. The medical issue has since been resolved and I am fine medically. The doctors told me I’m as healthy as a professional athlete. That made me giggle… I’d rather chill on the couch than work out! Ever since that day I’m terrified every time I get in the car with him by myself that I’m going to put him in danger. I know it’s completely irrational and ridiculous but the feeling is still there. I’m excited to try the suggestion in this article and see how it can help me. Thank for publishing it!

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Tshering A

THANK YOU for this wonderful article. It has surely given me hope which is the most precious thing one could ever lose. I’ve been fighting this for a while now and I strongly believe that I can surely overcome my fears. It’s hard to describe what you don’t understand and it’s even harder to be brave when the thing that scares you is you. My advice to all those going through this is never to lose HOPE and know that you are not alone. Do what you have to do with a positive mind, stay strong and I promise you this, you will beat this. The strongest among us are the ones who’ve fought this battle and won on their own to which others are unaware of. Remember, you are strong.

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Lu

I recently moved back in with my partner after two years. I’m pregnant. I’ve been getting anxiety everytime I come home from work. My mind has been drifting. Making up scenarios and preparing myself for disappointment when I get home. I can’t relax. I don’t trust them even tho I have no actual evidence of anything that shows they can’t be trusted. They are loving, supporting and caring. There is great fear that they have feelings for another person, that they will do something that will hurt me, drugs, lie to me, etc. I needed to read this. Thank you. I definitely need to practice letting anxiety be and it will pass. I’ve been dealing with it alone sometimes I let it be known to my partner but they are so great that I don’t want to make them feel any less. I’m definitely going to practice these routines.

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Chezen S

Great article. I tend to think anxiety as a mirage to a thirsty man in the desert. If you believe it, you are likely to run after it, drying you up faster. If you keep calm and take it for what it is…..you might wait until help shows up or find Real water! It is a question of perception I guess

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Simon

I have been dealing (or trying to) with anxiety from a very very young age. After struggling for so long I noticed in other species and nature by being still the body is able to process what is not necessary in terms of thought processes. This brings me back to a natural sense of myself and that anxiousness dissolves.

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Simon G

Hi Karen
Been facing some anxiety in my life and getting to the guts of the source of that and in doing so getting results. How is it going with you.

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Greta J

I really loved your tips to just wait and listen to the storm in your brain without trying to calm it so that you can let it all pass. I have really bad anxiety, and it is affecting my life and my productivity. I will have to try your tips, but I wonder if I should look for counseling to help me work through things.

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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