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Anxiety

3 Steps to Get Free From Anxiety

Shifting your thoughts to start thinking more realistically.

Key points

  • With deliberate practice, a person can shift their anxious thoughts and start to think more realistically.
  • Facing fears slowly and gradually helps break the habit of avoiding uncomfortable situations.
  • Effective anxiety management includes accepting that one is anxious and then redirecting to something more important than the anxiety.
Drobot Dean/Adobe Stock
Source: Drobot Dean/Adobe Stock

Is your life designed around anxiety? I know from personal experience and from my therapy practice that anxiety can be a controlling presence in our lives. It can fill our minds with threatening thoughts and shrink our worlds as we try to avoid the danger we see everywhere. Without realizing it, we can allow anxiety to dominate every part of our day.

But we don’t have to live at the mercy of anxiety. There are research-backed ways to retrain our minds and reclaim our lives, or as clinical psychologist Joel Minden says, “Show your anxiety who’s boss.”

I recently spoke with Minden about dealing with anxiety in a four-part series on the Think Act Be podcast. For him, successfully managing anxiety begins with “acknowledging that it’s a normal human emotion.” Rather than trying to stop feeling anxious, we can “accept the anxiety, and then redirect attention to realistic and useful thinking.” Addressing our anxious thoughts is the first step in his three-step plan for managing anxiety more effectively.

Step 1: Change Your Thinking

Anxiety directs our thoughts to the future—with a bias toward seeing the worst. “We’re making these predictions that something bad will happen,” Minden said, “and we won’t be able to handle it.” This two-part story explains why anxious thoughts feel so threatening: "We overestimate risk, and underestimate our ability to cope”:

  1. Something terrible is going to happen.
  2. I won’t be able to handle it.

Try this: To break this pattern, Minden recommends being “a little more flexible in our thinking. The reality is generally more a matter of degree. Perhaps the bad thing will happen, but maybe there’s something I can do that will make it a little more manageable. Perhaps the worst will happen, but maybe something that’s not so bad will happen—or maybe even something good.”

Rather than focusing on what might go wrong, shift to how you’re going to cope. “You might say to yourself, ‘Perhaps it will be difficult to cope, and I may not be perfect in the way that I handle a challenging situation,’” said Minden, “‘but there are certain things I can do to be a little more effective if the bad thing happens.’”

With more helpful and realistic thoughts, we’re in a better position to face situations that we might otherwise avoid due to anxiety.

Step 2: Focus on Meaningful Action

Minden is well-acquainted with the desire to avoid things that are uncomfortable. “When people experience anxiety (myself included),” he said, “it brings an avoidance urge. Who wants to put themselves in a dangerous situation where they might struggle or fail—or where anxiety escalates to the point that they get overwhelmed and can’t tolerate it? So it’s certainly understandable that people have these avoidance urges.”

But the problem with avoidance is that it all too easily can become a habit that’s hard to break. “When you avoid something uncomfortable, you get a little bit of relief temporarily,” said Minden, which the brain interprets as a reward. “The relief you feel strengthens the commitment to avoidance. And then it’s really hard to do the things that are important in life if you’re going back to avoidance every time a situation is anxiety-provoking.” As a result, we’re no longer avoiding things by choice and instead are locked into a pattern of moving away from discomfort.

Try this: It’s not easy to face your fears, especially if it involves a situation where you’ve had a punishing experience in the past, like feeling extremely uncomfortable at a party where you didn’t know many people. The key to conquering avoidance is to take small, incremental steps toward facing fears. “Take a reasonable risk, rather than doing something too big,” advises Minden. “Make the smallest change that you know you can make that you would still consider to be meaningful. Prepare for it, and make a commitment that I’m going to do this.”

Repetition is key. “Try to make small changes consistently, rather than gearing up for one big event,” Minden suggests. “Try to do little versions of a difficult thing four to five times a week, which really creates an opportunity for new learning.” Chances are that when you face your anxiety head-on, you’ll feel like a hero afterward. “It promotes self-efficacy,” said Minden. “It’s that confident belief that I have the capacity to do this—it may not be perfect, it may not be easy, I may struggle with the emotions—but I can do it.”

Step 3: Accept and Redirect

At the heart of effective anxiety management is the determination that anxiety will no longer take center stage in our lives. We can live out that decision by first accepting that at times we feel anxious. “Acceptance is acknowledging that anxious thoughts and feelings and uncertainty are there,” said Minden. “Working harder is not going to resolve it and is not going to get me where I want to go. Maybe I can just allow it to be there and understand it as something that’s going to come up when I’m presented with a threat or a challenge.”

Try this: Decide in advance “where you want to focus when you’re feeling anxious,” said Minden. “Accept the internal processes you can’t control, like thoughts and physical situations, along with the uncertainty that comes with an anxiety-provoking situation.” Then, redirect your attention. “Instead of being so engaged in anxiety itself, there’s something else that might be more important to attend to, like taking action and doing the difficult thing,” Minden said. Importantly, the move to redirection isn’t focused on making uncomfortable feelings go away. We’ll often feel better when we redirect away from an anxiety focus, but if we make anxiety relief the immediate goal it can easily backfire.

Minden suggests that we “learn to focus on something that’s going to be more useful—even with this background concern that something bad is going to happen.” Making this powerful shift a regular practice allows you to free yourself from the grip of anxiety.

LinkedIn/Facebook image: Dikushin Dmitry/Shutterstock

References

Minden, J. (2020). Show your anxiety who's boss: A three-step CBT program to help you reduce anxious thoughts and worry. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

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