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Mental Health

Psst… You’re Looking at Anxiety All Wrong

Suffering from bouts of anxiety? If your first reaction is to go into a tailspin analyzing, dissecting or running from it, social psychologist Amy Johnson, PhD, suggests trying something radically different: Embrace it.

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When plagued by anxiety, we tend to give into it – from psychoanalyzing the past to negatively predicting the future. Dr. Johnson’s advice is to do the opposite. After 35 years of anxiety, she cracked the code: Stop trying to “overcome” it.

Tell us about your work

Most of my work is with people with anxiety, habits and a lot of worry and insecurity – people who feel like they’re living in their heads too much. Right now, I run The Little School of Big Change, an online school that has helped thousands find freedom from anxiety and habits to live more peaceful lives. We do live Zoom calls providing coaching and support.

What is this thing called anxiety?

I consider anxiety and worry as harmful overthinking, tied to habits like shopping, gambling and being online too much. Sufferers often feel they live in their heads a lot. Life feels hard and not very fulfilling. Instead of living in the present, they tend to live in the past or the future. This happens when we overthink.

So, how do you effectively cope with this anxiety?

Anxiety is like the weather. Weather comes and goes, and it doesn’t hurt the sky. That’s how we work, too. Feelings move through us and then they leave. They don’t have to mean anything. Like a storm, we don’t need to help them along.

Notice that your experience can change all by itself. We can get caught up in feelings or thinking that we don’t like. We then try to will that away with force. But if we can see that feelings change on their own – and much more easily and naturally – then we don’t have to force them. It doesn’t make sense to try to manipulate all the thoughts we’re trying to manage. This knowledge can bring you peace.

When we’ve become conditioned to seeing ourselves with issues and labels, this is hard to consider. But try asking: “What if I’m actually OK? It’s my habitual thinking that tells me I’m not.” When you stop identifying with the stories your mind concocts, they no longer have the power they used to.

Try these tips from Dr. Johnson to reframe how you approach anxiety.

1. Know that it will pass

Anxious thoughts and feelings eventually change completely on their own. Our attention and expectations keep our feelings present in our experience. In truth, thoughts and feelings move through us as weather moves through the sky: naturally, needed neither help nor intervention. Notice this in your own experience.

2. Change your self-perception

Consider that you were not necessarily born an anxious person. Are you relatively peaceful and anxiety-free right now? If so, consider that, with practice, this could always be the case. When habitual thoughts arise, your brain races to identify them as “anxiety.” But before those thoughts get louder and more persistent, work to move through them so they become fleeting.

3. Identify where the discomfort comes from

What exactly are you feeling? We’re used to pushing anxiety away or trying to hide from it. This is what hurts. Resisting is what’s painful. To counter it, be curious about what anxiety-related sensations you’re feeling, know that they won’t hurt you and remind yourself that they will pass.

4. Do not fear the discomfort

Anxiety comes with physical discomfort: a tightening of the chest, shortness of breath, sweaty palms. But these physical sensations are simply uncomfortable and not necessarily dangerous. Try to reframe this discomfort as merely an alarm. Your body is alerting you, telling you that you’re getting lost in your mind’s narrative and forgetting who you are. Begin to see that discomfort is not always indicative of a problem. Instead, consider it a reminder not to take your thinking too seriously.

5. Remind yourself of the mind’s limitations

The mind is programmed to rehash the past and use memories to predict the future. However, this is also where anxiety is rooted – not in any immediate threat, but in the past and the future. What you’re feeling is a compelling story rooted in memory, not an actual threat in the present.

Want to learn more about making peace with anxiety?

Dr. Johnson’s advice on outsmarting anxiety is to stop frantically trying to overcome it. In theory, this is deceptively simple. In practice? It’s quite challenging. That’s why this shrink penned her latest tome, Just a Thought: A No-Willpower Approach to Overcome Self-Doubt & Make Peace with Your Mind. In it, she further explains the mindset needed to turn overbearing anxiety into background noise. $16 paperback, $9 for Kindle on Amazon, New Harbinger

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