Whether public speaking makes you weak in the knees or the thought of stepping foot on a plane turns your stomach, everyone experiences anxiety about something.
Anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s meant to keep you safe. If someone dared you to jump off a bridge or tried to talk you into a get-rich-quick scheme, your anxiety should kick in and say that’s a bad idea.
But you also likely experience anxiety even at times when you aren’t in any actual danger. Walking into a job interview, attending a social gathering, or reviewing your budget might also cause a spike in anxiety.
Knowing how to deal with that spike is crucial to living your best life. Your brain will try to convince you to run away when something causes you anxiety. And if you listen, you might miss out on opportunities to improve your life. It’s important to know how to recognize when your anxiety alarm bells are just false alarms—those times when your heart races and palms grow sweaty, but you aren’t in any physical danger.
As a psychotherapist, I offer people a variety of tools to help them manage their anxiety—and I use many of them myself. From breathing techniques that relax the body to thinking strategies that calm the mind, these anti-anxiety tools can be quite effective.
But one of my favorite strategies for taming anxiety is narrative therapy. Externalizing your anxiety is an effective way to combat that uncomfortable feeling.
How to Externalize Anxiety with Narrative Therapy
While narrative therapy with a trained professional is going to be most effective, there are some steps you can take on your own to change the way you think about anxiety:
1. Think of your anxiety as an external force. Rather than telling yourself, “I’m an anxious person,” or saying, “I’m so nervous,” think of anxiety as something that bothers you, not who you are. For example, you might say, “Anxiety causes my heart to beat fast and my mind to race.”
2. Name your anxiety. Many people find it helpful to name their anxiety. I’ve worked with clients who have called it everything from “the butterflies” to “the dark cloud.” This helps remind them that it’s something that comes into their life—but it’s not their identity.
3. Acknowledge how it affects you. Whether you say, “The butterflies make it hard to push myself to do scary things,” or “The dark cloud makes me think about worst-case scenarios,” identify how your anxiety affects the way you think, feel (emotionally and physically), and behave. You might even say things like, “The dark cloud will likely try to show up during that interview today.”
4. Imagine yourself in a battle. Think of all the times you haven’t listened to your anxiety and all the strategies you’ve used to combat it. Identify the weapons you’ve used in the past—and new tools you can try. For example, “Breathing techniques calm the butterflies,” or “Reminding myself of how things might go better than I expect pushes the dark clouds away.”
Externalizing your anxiety—and thinking of it like a battle—reminds you that you have choices for how you respond. It can also help you accept that while it’s likely to continue bothering you at times, you don’t have to let it hold you back or drag you down.
Just like any other skill, changing the story of your anxiety takes practice. But over time, you can begin to think and feel differently.
When to Seek Professional Help
While some anxiety is normal, too much can get in the way of living your best life. If your anxiety makes it difficult to function or is holding you back from reaching your goals, seek professional help.
Anxiety is one of the most treatable mental health conditions, yet most people with anxiety wait years before they get treatment. Consequently, they suffer a lot longer than necessary. If you’re struggling with anxiety, talk to your physician. Inquire about a referral to a mental health professional who can help you find relief.
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