If you struggle with chronic anxiety, developing a healthier mindset about your anxiety itself is the key to freeing yourself from it.
In this article I’m going to walk you through 3 mindset shifts I use as a psychologist every day to help my own clients work through their chronic anxiety.
With patience and dedication, it is possible to free yourself from chronic anxiety.
1. Approach your anxiety with compassion, not aggression
Here’s a basic fact of human psychology everyone should know: You have no direct control over your emotions.
There’s no anxiety dial you can turn down, no happiness button you can press, no sadness lever you can pull down. And if you have no control over something—including your emotions—it follows that you can’t be responsible for it.
Ask any attorney or judge you know and they’ll confirm that no one person has ever been convicted of feeling too angry. Of course, people get put in prison all the time for things they did while feeling angry. But we don’t judge people based on their feelings alone; it’s their actions for which they’re responsible.
All that’s to say, it makes no sense to judge yourself or be critical of yourself for how you feel emotionally. If you’re going to get judgmental with yourself for feeling anxious, you might as well get judgmental with the sky for being cloudy.
If you struggle with chronic anxiety, a big part of it is the relationship you’ve built with your anxiety over time.
When we consistently feel anxious, we tend to interpret our anxiety as a bad thing—something to be eliminated or fixed. And when we habitually view our anxiety as a problem, we train our minds to respond to it as a problem, that is, with more anxiety. See the problem?
When you have a combative relationship with your anxiety, you generate anxiety about anxiety.
When you’re in the habit of judging your anxiety as bad and blaming yourself for having it, you’re only strengthening its intensity and prolonging its duration. The way out of this vicious cycle is self-compassion.
Having self-compassion for your anxiety means acknowledging your anxiety as natural and fundamentally okay even if it’s painful, scary, or irritating. It means empathizing with yourself and not holding yourself unrealistically accountable for things you don’t have control over, including emotions like anxiety. It means treating your own anxiety like you would treat a friend experiencing anxiety—listen, validate, refrain from judgment, and offer support.
If you want to eliminate chronic anxiety, stop treating it like an enemy.
Watch your self-talk around anxiety. Notice your habitual ways of interpreting what your anxiety means. Ask yourself, What would it look like to have a more compassionate attitude toward your own anxiety?
This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.
— Kristin Neff
2. Have the willingness to live with your anxiety
In her creative memoir Big Magic, Liz Gilbert uses a beautiful and instructive metaphor to describe her relationship with fear.
She says life is often like driving in a car—you’ve got a destination in mind and you’re trying your best to get there. Maybe it’s nailing a new job interview. Maybe it’s hitting publish on that new blog post. Maybe it’s bringing up the fact with your spouse that you’re unhappy with your sex life.
In any case, as we’re driving down the road of life, the anxiety monster often pops up and demands to take control of the car. And most of us instinctually deal with the anxiety monster in one of two ways:
- We roll over submissively and let the anxiety monster drive. This is wallowing in worry and anxiety.
- The second and more common reaction is to try and throw the anxiety monster out the window and get rid of it. We pop a Xanax, argue with ourselves about how irrational our fear is, distract ourselves with loud music or a phone call with a friend, etc.
The problem with the first reaction is obvious: Unless you’re being chased by a bear or some other truly life or death situation, you do not want anxiety driving the car.
The problem with the second approach—trying to eliminate anxiety or distract yourself from it—is that you usually end up crashing the car as you try to throw the anxiety monster out the window. In other words, the negative consequences of resisting your anxiety end up costing you even more than the initial anxiety. Which means…
If you want to be free from anxiety, you must be willing to have it.
Gilbert goes on to describe how she finally learned to manage her fear by taking a new approach toward the anxiety monster. She realized there was a third option besides handing over control or trying to throw it out the window: She could welcome her fear to come along for the ride but insist that it stay in the back seat.
In other words, rather than passively giving in to her anxiety and allowing it to take over, or aggressively trying to fight or fix it, she learned that if she acknowledged and validated her fears, and then set healthy boundaries on them, she could get on with her life and work despite her anxiety.
When we validate our anxiety with self-compassion then give it permission to come along for the ride (preferably in the back seat, or better yet, the way back), we train our minds to stop being afraid of anxiety.
When we stop resisting the pain and discomfort of temporary anxiety, we free ourselves from the suffering of chronic anxiety.
The next time your anxiety rears its ugly head, acknowledge it and welcome it to come along for the ride with genuine willingness. This is the only way to reducing its power in the long run.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
— Haruki Murakami
3. Take full responsibility for your worry habit
The first two mindsets—self-compassion and willingness—are about the dangers of judging yourself for and trying to control something over which you don’t actually have direct control, the emotion of anxiety.
But there’s an equally dangerous approach in not taking responsibility for something you do have control over, however difficult it feels—worry.
Worry is the mental habit that perpetuates and strengthens the emotion of anxiety. It usually takes the form of future-focused self-talk that imagines potential threats and negative outcomes in the future:
- Oh my God, why am I having heart flutters? Is this a heart attack? What if I pass out here on the trail… No one will find me and I’ll die before I get to the hospital!
- Should I not have mentioned his mother at dinner? He probably thinks I’m a bitch. Why can’t I just keep my mouth shut? I’m probably going to sabotage this relationship just like I always do.
Worry is a tempting path to go down because it feels a lot like problem-solving—a helpful mental habit that we all use day in and day out for most of our lives.
The only difference between problem-solving and worry is that worry isn’t really helpful, and usually, just makes things worse.
Worry is when we try to problem-solve something that either isn’t really a problem or isn’t something we can solve right now.
Whatever the initial cause, most of our chronic anxiety gets perpetuated and strengthened by our habit of worry.
Because anxiety feels bad, we resort to worry as a misguided attempt to figure things out and make the anxiety go away. And because worry feels proactive, it gives us the illusion of control and power.
While you may get a very brief hit of relief from deluding yourself into thinking you can control things, the anxiety-enhancing effect of worry only makes our anxiety worse in the long-run.
So, how do we stop worrying?
How to worry less
The simple but extremely difficult answer is to strengthen your attention muscle. When your mind wants to worry and think about all the terrible things that might happen in the future, the only way out is to re-direct your attention onto something else and hold it there. Conceptually simple, practically difficult.
Most of us are used to letting our attention gets pulled around by whatever shiny, important-looking stimuli catch it. As a result, our ability to regulate our attention—to control what we choose to focus on or not—has atrophied and is weak.
A daily mindfulness practice is the best way I know to strengthen your attention muscle and improve your ability to detach from unhelpful patterns of worry.
While you may not be able to control an initial thought that pops into your mind and the emotion it generates, you always have control over your attention—where you choose to place your focus.
Take responsibility for your powers of attention and watch your habit of worry fade.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
— Reinhold Niebuhr
Everything You Need to Know
Whatever the cause of your anxiety, your mindsets around it are a key reason it remains, and perhaps grows bigger. If you want to reduce this anxiety, start by cultivating a healthier attitude toward it:
- Approach your anxiety with compassion, not aggression.
- Cultivate the willingness to live your life despite your anxiety.
- Commit to full responsibility for your worry habit.
Freedom from chronic anxiety is possible if you’re willing to change your relationship to it.