So let’s say that you’re dealing with anxiety. I’m going to take a wild guess that your internal dialogue might sound something like this…
—waking up in the morning—Mmmk, go-go-go, let’s get going, I’m gonna DO this day! Pick up, drop off. Email check. Ping! Notifications. “Can you meet tomorrow?” Schedule so packed; let’s see where I can fit it in; got it, I’ll switch this and this and then squeeze in this. Ping-ping! Notifications. Ugh, forget them for now; I’ll check notifications later and go through them all at once, that’s more efficient. Email check. “I need you to let me know about…before I can proceed.” Lemme type this email real quick. Oh, wait! I forgot to text so-and-so yesterday. Or was that the day before I told her I’d text her about the date? Shit. Shit-shit-shit. Wait. What was I doing? Email. Type the email. But I need to grab that piece of paper with the confirmation code that’s in my purse. Where’s my purse? Living room. —walks to living room— Dammit. I just walked into this room for something. What was it…? Shit-shit-shit. Okay. Well, I’m sure it will come back to me. Ping! —quick glance at phone— How did the number of responses to that post double within the last thirty minutes? Jesus. I’d better just check notifications now. Scroll, emoji, scroll, emoji, scroll, double-tap, scroll, double-tap, double-tap, emoji. That appointment is in 30 minutes. I think I have time for…no, wait, I have to grab the thing on the way over…plus parking…okay, I’ll start getting ready, now.
—halfway through getting underwear on— OH YEAH, THAT’S WHY I WALKED INTO THAT ROOM, EARLIER! Shit-shit-shit, I told her I’d get that to her by end of day…
So, yeah. Dealing with anxiety, anyone?
Here’s what I think is at the root of all anxiety: the Story that we tell. Every single moment, I try to remind myself, I get to choose the Story. If I will notice that I’m spinning in a Story of anxiety, and interrupt it, I can shift.
Let’s try on this hypothetical: you’re juggling marriage, motherhood, mortgage, job, care-taking of relatives, management of the household (buying food, getting laundry done, shoving the library books into the corner so that you don’t trip over them), with a little sprinkling of hoping to see your friends at some point and mayyyybe getting some exercise in. The fact that you aren’t exactly feeling jazzed about your marriage or your job feel like weighty issues that you “should” enter into some heavy-duty therapy about, but that’s another hour of your time and another expense to chase after insurance companies about—oh yeah, and, your employer just changed insurance companies and now your deductible is going to go up and you need to select a new provider, but you haven’t had time to review any of the materials, which is another thing you’re resenting your employer about at the moment…even as you feel guilty because you know how lucky you are to even have employer-sponsored insurance…
In that moment, you’ve got a powerful choice around the Story that you choose for dealing with anxiety. You can choose: “This is too much” or “I don’t know how I’m going to get this all done” or “Lemme grab a bottle of wine because wine o’clock is going to need to start before dinner, tonight.”
You could also choose these Stories: “Let me slow down and look at one thing at a time,” or “This is a lot, and, I’m going to use time to breathe and get grounded and then do my best,” or “Let me see who I can ask for help,” or “I don’t know how, yet, but somehow and some way, I’m going to find a new job.”
The Bigger View
Now, let me make sure that I say this: I am 100%, completely, and fully aware of how this sounds. You might already be writing this off as a completely “Pollyanna” idea that doesn’t help real people with the real problems of their lives.
Let me say clearly: I am aware that embedded within the above hypothetical example are multiple systemic oppressions (and privileges), and that what would be of most help to the individual in this hypothetical would be systemic change—social support so that care-taking of relatives isn’t solely on the backs of family members, some way of addressing the rising cost of mortgages and giving better pay to workers and not corporate shareholders, and for fuck’s sake, let’s get some universal health care in the United States, already.
I’m aware of all that, and, if someone is currently trying to wade through those circumstances, they need some kind of help dealing with anxiety in the here-and-now of what they are facing (by the way, I have been someone who has walked through several of those circumstances, right down to literally not having any health insurance). The tide of systemic change is slow and what I want for people is the ability to step into something that can help them to live better lives, right here and right now.
What’s more, this idea that you shift the Story isn’t me trying to throw glitter and rainbows at real people’s problems. Behavioral science and clinical research supports this idea. If you are dealing with anxiety, you need specific strategies for management of anxiety. Choosing a Story that is positive would be referred to clinically as “adopting positive self talk.”
Adopting positive self talk as a strategy for dealing with anxiety has been found to help students, and athletes, shape how employees feel at work and help people struggling with depression. Shifting your self talk is part of many different psychotherapeutic modalities: cognitive-behavioral therapy, narrative therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, mindfulness-based therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy…and all of those therapies have been shown to be effective with clinical anxiety, clinical depression, addiction, and more.
Whether the anxiety is clinical (in other words, biochemical and brain-based) or due to external factors (a recent trauma or micro-trauma such as job loss or divorce), positive self talk can absolutely make a difference.
Dealing With Anxiety that Feels Really…Real
I’ve observed that one of the hardest parts of all of this is just getting started. It’s hard to start because anxiety feels so real—like, really, really, really real.
When you’re not caught in anxiety, money is about addition and subtraction and making choices based on the sum, marriages are imperfect and will always require work but the rewards are worth it, and it feels simpler to look at a long to-do list and decide, “I think I need to let go of this and this from the list, because I don’t have the time for them.”
When you’re stuck in anxiety, everything is different because of the Stories that are running: money is surely about to run out and you won’t survive, your marriage is on the brink of collapse and you’ll hate yourself if it fails and probably end up alone forever, and everything on the to-do list carries equal weight and nothing can be pulled.
(Also, when you’re stuck in anxiety, people suggesting solutions like taking time each day to really and truly develop the skill-set of positive self talk will sound like idiot lunatics who have no idea what kind of pressure you’re really under.)
Anxiety is fear, and fear jacks up your cortisol and hooks itself to whatever it thinks will ensure its survival. Every single time we follow our personal fear routines, we reinforce the idea in our brain that the way to deal with anxiety is to follow that routine that we followed, last time—namely, worrying about things going wrong, future-tripping, ruminating.
The first several times that you notice that a fear routine of anxiety is playing and make a conscious choice to interrupt that habitual response in the brain and choose something else, choose a different Story? It’ll feel like lifting an enormously heavy weight. It’ll feel confusing. It’ll feel nuts.
You’re interrupting an old, fear-based habit and creating a new habit. The old habit is going to feel really real, for awhile. The new habit is going to feel awkward, at first.
Which is why you need to actually say to yourself…
Of course it’ll feel confusing!
Of course this is going to feel nuts, for a bit!
Of course this is awkward; I’m new at it, after all!
The fact that it feels awkward, confusing, or nuts, is not your signal to run back to the comfort zone of your old habit that might feel more familiar at the same time that it props up your anxiety.
And then…you choose your Story, your entire narrative. “I want something different for myself, so I’m choosing a different way of framing this situation. Money is tight. I feel stressed. And somehow, everything is figure-out-able. I’m tired of all this pressure. It pisses me off that my life looks like this. And, I’m going to breathe. Maybe there’s a solution here I’ve never considered. At the very least, remembering to breathe and reminding myself that I am okay right here and right now, will feel better than ruminating…”
Anxiety is Not Required
Think of any task in life, any problem you’re trying to solve.
Then ask yourself: “Is anxiety required, for me to do this task, solve this problem?”
I’ve contemplated this question for a hot minute, and I have to say, so far I have never landed on any task in life or problem to address that required anxiety.
If anxiety isn’t required—if it isn’t helpful—then we owe it to ourselves to develop the skill-set for dealing with anxiety that helps it to shift.
One Last Thing
Shifting your Story and choosing one that reframes limitation isn’t the only thing you can choose, here. There are specific actions that you can choose, as well. You could…
– Turn off your phone’s notifications (question whether you even really “need” a cell phone).
– Learn how to say your “true yes” and “true no” so that you aren’t taking on more tasks or doing favors that you don’t really have time for.
– Take a stand for shifting systemic oppression—call your representatives, show up to the polls.
– Bring some kind of mindfulness-based practice into your life (in The Courage Habit, I call that “accessing the body” and there is a free audio meditation that you can get if you’re a Your Courageous Life subscriber).
– Evaluate who the people are who bring you joy when you spend time with them, and spend more time with them and less time with the people who don’t bring as much joy.
– Stop spending hours in front of screens, whether they are television screens, computer screens, or phone screens. Limit yourself to 20 minutes a day in front of screens, period—because you realize that the average two hours of television Americans watch each night adds up to fourteen hours a week which adds up to 56 hours a month, right? And that 56 hours a month could be devoted to…meditation, stretching, seeing friends, writing the book you know you’ve got in you, researching something that has always fascinated you, learning a new language, actually reading the books you check out from the library, taking walks, being in nature, organizing your closet, making a little extra money on the side through that business idea you’ve always wanted to get going, sex, self-pleasure, strength training, painting, cooking a brand-new recipe, volunteering…
…and all of those activities could also be tied to experiencing less anxiety.
That’s all I want for you, for me, for all of us—to find our way to a way of being where we live vibrantly, courageously, and happily. This is where we start.