Anissa Bell, LMFT
Clarity on changing your relationship with anxiety: “Hey anxiety, can we be friends?”
Updated: Dec 25, 2022
Throughout the pandemic and beyond, anxiety has become a much more prevalent issue and continues to escalate as we adapt to the changes post-pandemic. When people think of dealing with anxiety there's often the goal of getting rid of it. In actuality, anxiety has a very important purpose for our wellbeing. We all have many parts and anxiety is just one part of us. It is a protector. Anxiety is the part that looks for danger and alerts us that we need to make ourselves safe. It does this by activating thoughts and body signals.
I like to externalize anxiety when I work with clients, so that we really view it as this sort of entity that is sitting next to you. You do want anxiety to go with you places because that is what will stop you from stepping into traffic, or alert you to other dangerous situations. So if we make a goal for anxiety to completely go away then we lose that protector. The issue with anxiety is that it can become an inaccurate source of information. When our nervous system is very activated, anxiety starts giving false messages to us. This is very similar to that person in your office who is very negative, or that friend you have that is a really big know-it-all. When we hear distorted information from other external sources, like that co-worker or friend, we can more easily disregard it. When the information is coming from within ourselves, it feels much more believable.
You may feel angry, scared, resentful or confused when experiencing high anxiety. You just want it to go away! Instead, I encourage you to think about how you can change your relationship with anxiety. Appreciate what it does for you -- the way that it keeps you safe. Also understand that sometimes it gets a bit off track. Rather than being angry at the anxiety or trying to push it away, dialogue with your anxiety. Acknowledge it, let anxiety know “I see you, thank you for showing up, I hear your message but I need to dial down the volume.” Communicate with your anxiety to let it know that this is not actually a dangerous situation. Ask anxiety to step back. Ask your wise grounded self to move forward. Tune in to more truthful information and challenge those distorted thoughts. We usually cannot stop the thoughts from happening, but we can change the way that we engage with those thoughts. An important step in reducing anxiety is to change the way you engage and not automatically accept your thoughts as truth.
A thought is just a thought. It's one version of the story and frequently the most negative version of the story. Those negative thoughts come to us automatically with no work needed! The more intentional work requires inviting in more truthful thoughts. Explore the other side of the story. Think about a court of law where there is the prosecution and the defense. You can't get to a decision or an outcome until you hear from both sides. Neutralize the anxious thoughts by exploring both sides of the scenario. This is what healthy interactions with anxiety can look like.
Really it's about balancing your thoughts. It is important to challenge thoughts that really feel believable to you. For example, you did not sleep well last night and your anxiety thought is “I did not sleep well last night or the night before so I probably will not sleep well tonight.” What's the other side of that story? “I may have difficulty sleeping or I may sleep just fine tonight. I’m curious to see what happens.” Again, we are not trying to counteract the negative thoughts with something that does not feel believable. It's about not accepting the message that anxiety is delivering and just running with it as an absolute truth.
One way to practice balancing your negative thoughts is by practicing gratitude. You can write in a gratitude journal, make a list on your phone of daily gratitudes, or dialogue regularly with your partner about what each of you are thankful for at the moment. Practicing gratitude daily means looking for the big and small moments. What you are grateful for today might include your healthy children and it might also include the great cup of coffee you had this morning. The idea is that when you start to look for what is going right, your brain starts to reprogram and this becomes more natural. In the same way anxiety starts to look for what's going wrong, gratitude looks for what's going right.
Expect anxiety to be there in certain situations. Everyone is different as far as what makes you feel nervous, but you likely have a good idea of things that may cause you to become anxious. If you are getting up to make a speech, for example, expect that you and anxiety are going to go up together to make the speech. This prevents you from being caught off guard, expecting that anxiety won't be there, and feeling distressed when it shows up. Have fun with this, talk to your anxiety and let it know “hey anxiety, you and I are going to go up and make the speech now.” Expect anxiety will be seated in the passenger seat when you are driving on a stormy day. It is allowed to sit there with you and it might even point out some real danger. However, it does not have to drive the car, it does not have to control the narrative, and it does not have to be in charge of the situation.
When our nervous system is activated, anxiety can become especially loud and this makes it difficult to balance thoughts. One way to improve your relationship with anxiety is to proactively work on calming your nervous system. When the nervous system is already activated and at the very high end of the range, it is easy for just one thing to trigger it and result in a panic attack. Really tune in to your body and you can feel when your nervous system is activated. This is that feeling of edginess, that something bad is going to happen, shakiness, heart racing, muscle tension, difficulty breathing, tightness in your chest. These are signals that your nervous system is pretty stimulated and an indicator that calming techniques are needed.
My favorite way to proactively manage anxiety is to do daily breathing exercises. There are a few reasons why I love this coping skill. First, it is a very quick technique and this is important since daily schedules are already packed! Breathing exercises take only 3 to 5 minutes twice a day. The idea is to find a breathing rhythm that involves a longer exhale versus inhale. Breathing through the diaphragm activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This tells your brain that you are safe. It lets your body know that you do not have to fight, flight or freeze! The other thing I appreciate about this coping skill is that you have with you all the time and it is very easy to use. You can use this tool without anyone even knowing that you're doing it. Additionally, a breathing practice involves counting and the counting is another way to distract from those anxious thoughts. Breathing exercises are also a tool that you can use reactively when you feel anxiety spike.
Be attentive to anxiety when it shows up. Try listening to what it is really trying to tell you, and consider changing your relationship with anxiety. Become friends with it! Be thankful that anxiety is trying to keep you safe and also be aware that anxiety is not always speaking 100% truth.