How to Be Less Anxious: An Overview
Many people are searching for how to be less anxious. While no one answer will work for everyone, here’s a general approach to decreasing anxiety.
To be less anxious, you need to make an attitude shift that is going to sound strange. The attitude shift is this: rather than trying to be less anxious right now, you need to practice being okay with having more anxiety. If you do this, then with time anxiety will be less alarming and less threatening to your brain, and you will be less anxious.
I know that this sounds bizarre. It IS bizarre. And it works. Here’s why.
How Trying to Be Less Anxious Can Make You MORE Anxious
When you try to make yourself less anxious in the moment, you send your brain the message that anxiety is unwanted, bad, and dangerous. What does your brain do then? It starts to look more closely for anxiety—because now it thinks that anxiety is unwanted, bad, and dangerous.
When your brain looks more closely for anxiety, it pays more attention to thoughts and sensations that could be anxious. It’s as if part of your brain becomes border security, monitoring your body and mind for signs of anxiety.
But here’s the problem: Attention is not neutral. It has the power to create and magnify what it looks for.
The more your brain looks for anxiety, the more likely it will find it. Then, it brings this anxiety to your attention, and as a result you feel more anxious.
For example, a person might think to themselves, “Uh oh, was that anxiety?” and start scanning their body for tension. They discover (or create) more tension, and this stresses them out. As a result, they become even more anxious and tense. The cycle repeats.
So, to summarize:
1. When you try to make anxiety go away, you teach your brain that it is bad and dangerous.
2. Your brain, thinking that anxiety is bad and dangerous, pays more attention to possible signs of anxiety.
3. Because attention magnifies what it looks for, more anxiety is noticed and created.
This can happen again and again, creating a snowball effect where a tiny, normal amount of anxiety is made into something much bigger than it was ever meant to be.
Basically, this is the White Bear Effect.1“it stands to reason that a person who feels overanxious might try mentally to relax, or that a depressed person might hope to remedy the problem by avoiding sad thoughts… But the simple decision to try to control our minds can sometimes lead us wildly out of control—turning what we thought was an antidote for our mental malaise into the very poison that creates it.” (Wegner, D. M. (1997). When the antidote is the poison: Ironic mental control processes. Psychological Science, 8(3), 148-150.) Here’s a nice video summary of it.
The point is, the more negative attention you give to your anxiety, the more you feed it. You make anxiety seem more dangerous than it really is.
What About Relaxation Techniques?
People often turn to relaxation as a way to be less anxious.
If this works for you, then keep it up!
If it doesn’t, ask yourself how you’re trying to relax? Chances are you’re still caught up in a struggle with your anxiety. You’re not really trying to relax; you’re trying to relax away the anxiety.
The problem is that the anxiety is still the focus. Your attention is still on your anxiety. You take a few breaths, tell yourself to calm down, all the while watching yourself to see if the anxiety is gone yet. “Is it still there? Crap, it’s not working. This is some tough anxiety.”
While there’s obviously a place for relaxation in your life, relaxation techniques all too often get used as just another way to erase anxiety.
When relaxation techniques are used this way, they usually backfire. Meditation is a great example. Beginning meditators know the frustration of trying to quiet their minds. The mind just gets louder! It’s similar with anxiety. If your intention is too direct and immediate, your anxiety will buck and push back.
But isn’t the goal to be less anxious?
Yes, of course! But the right move is to make it a long-term goal. If you make it a short-term goal, then it’s really an immediate demand. But, as we talked about above, the mind doesn’t do well with this kind of demand. It sets up a vicious cycle of the mind scanning itself for anxiety, finding anxiety, and then becoming more anxious.
When you make being less anxious into a long-term goal, you free your mind from having to watch over itself for signs of anxiety. As a result, your attention is free to re-engage in other things, such as work, play, and love.
So, this is the move to make: stop trying to be less anxious in the short-term, so that you can be less anxious in the long-term. Another way to say this is, if you aim directly at being less anxious, you’re setting yourself up to be more anxious. The difficult but necessary move is to accept short-term anxiety for long-term relief. The way out is through.
To be clear, relief does not mean getting rid of anxiety all together. It means having a healthy relationship to your anxiety, so that you don’t end up creating more of it than naturally arises.
How long does this take to happen? While it’s impossible to put a date on it, a lot of people see major progress in the span of months when they practice this new attitude. (Claire Weekes said that it takes about two months for the over-sensitized nervous system to calm down and return to baseline. Your job is to give it time. Desensitization takes time.)
Acceptance: The Right Attitude
As far as I can tell, in order to free your mind from struggling with anxiety, you have to take an attitude of acceptance towards your anxiety. This isn’t an attitude of surrender, but of, “I’m feeling anxious, and that’s okay. I’m going to continue with my life anyways.”
Acceptance is a way of disengaging from anxiety, rather than gluing your attention to it, getting into a fight with it, or trying to make it disappear.
Acceptance frees your attention to focus on other things—your work, your hobbies and projects, your relationships—giving anxious arousal the time it needs to dissipate on its own.
This is what I mean by this advice being bizarre. If you want to be less anxious, get comfortable being more anxious.
Learn to be okay having as much anxiety as you can imagine.
By “be okay”, I mean stay engaged in the activities and relationships that matter to you, instead of collapsing inwards into Type 2 suffering.
You can do this even while feeling intense amounts of anxiety. With practice, you get good at having anxiety without it totally capturing your attention and sending you to pieces. You learn to walk and live with anxiety by your side.
How do you do this exactly? By experimenting with different practices and finding out what works best for you. These practices include acceptance, mindfulness, exposures, affirmations, commitment to values-based choices, and so on.
When you accept, allow, and even encourage your anxiety, the anxiety becomes less alarming. At a point it stops even being that interesting. Your brain no longer sees anxiety as a threat.
If you practice this over time, you’ll get stuck on your anxiety less and less. You’ll notice it, but it will be just another object in your environment, no more important than hunger, weather, or a passing thought.
How Do You Practice Acceptance? What Does it Look Like?
One way to start is to ask yourself, “If I became really anxious right now, for no apparent reason, would I be okay with it? Would I worry about it? Would it ruin my mood?”
(If you are really anxious right now, you can ask yourself, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how okay am I having this anxiety? How badly do I want it to go away?”)
You could then ask yourself, “What keeps me from accepting my anxiety? Do I believe it stops me from doing things? Do I think it ruins my life? Do I think my life would be so much better without it?”
This gives you a sense of what kind of attitude you have towards your anxiety. If your attitude is one that encourages fear of fear, then you probably need to change it (or at least tinker with it) if you want to be less anxious.
Acceptance in Action: An Example
Maybe it would help to model my own approach, so you can have a sense of what accepting anxiety looks like in the moment.
I asked myself the above question (“If I suddenly felt really anxious, would I be okay with it?”). This is how I responded.
Part of me would be frustrated, but another part of me would be okay with it. I’d take it as an opportunity to practice inviting anxiety in so I could get more comfortable with it. I might say to myself, “This is okay. This is a chance to practice accepting my anxiety.”
Once I settled into it (not tensing against it), I might become curious as to what’s going on in my life that I’m feeling this anxious.
On the one hand, maybe nothing would arise. No insight, no special meaning—just static. I would remind myself that that’s okay too. Sometimes anxiety is a signal, other times it’s noise. Seeing it as noise, I would treat it as an opportunity to REALLY practice my acceptance skills. I might use affirmations or self-talk, such as, “This is great. What a great opportunity to practice.” I might even play around with the anxiety and ask for more.
On the other hand, if I stayed with it long enough, tolerating the discomfort, not being overtaken by it, something might rise into my awareness—a thought, an image, an intuition—to draw my attention to some area of my life where I haven’t given enough care. Maybe I’d realize that I was resentful about something and hadn’t expressed it, or stressed about a change at work or in my relationship.
At this point, I may begin to feel grateful for the anxiety that at first seemed so hostile and foreign. I might feel grateful that it made me slow down, unplug, and check in with myself. I might even thank it for pushing me to get in better touch with myself, and helping me to understanding myself better, even if just slightly.
I’m able to respond this way because I’ve practiced acceptance, learned to trust my emotions, and done my own personal therapy. I didn’t learn to do this overnight, but in retrospect, it didn’t take that long.
In the above example, I strung together some of the skills and wording that work best for me. Since you and I are different, what works for me might not work for you. This is why you need to experiment over time.
The point is, these are skills—skills that grow out of a new attitude towards anxiety, an attitude of acceptance. Thousands of people learn these skills in therapy every day. Even more practice them on their own. You can too.
What’s the Gift Here?
Anxiety often brings unexpected gifts. These gifts may be tough medicine to swallow, but they’re gifts nonetheless. Oftentimes they are life-changing.
So, what are the gifts here, related to what we talked about in this post? I can think of at least two.
1. Anxiety teaches you that thoughts and emotions can’t be controlled. They can be influenced and shaped over time, but they can’t be controlled. This is an invaluable lesson that will pay you back ten times over, sparing you from a lot of pointless suffering.
2. Anxiety puts you in a position where you have to grow. You get to a point where avoidance and suppression simply don’t work anymore (the anxiety gets too strong and disruptive). You have to try something new. This is an opportunity to learn new skills that will not only help with anxiety, but will improve your life in general. For example, learning to accept your anxiety translates to learning to accept your depression, your grief, and other suffering, such that you handle these emotions in healthier and more useful ways. Accepting anxiety also teaches you patience and humility, qualities that can help you in your relationships, especially intimate ones.
Learning to see the gift in anxiety supercharges your acceptance practice. When you believe that there’s a gift to be had in your anxiety, you start to welcome anxiety. You might think, “What am I going to learn this time?” or “I wonder how this experience will change me.” This really helps to desensitize your nervous system (calming the fight-or-flight reflex), since you come to believe that not only are you safe with anxiety, but that you’re surrounded by gifts patiently waiting to be discovered.
Conclusion – How to Be Less Anxious
So much anxiety is created by people’s desires and efforts to get rid of it. A person can wind up creating the very suffering they hate—until they take a new approach. This approach, based in accepting and inviting anxiety, seems bizarre and counter-intuitive, but for many people it works.
Specifically, it works by teaching the brain to see anxiety as not threatening. Once the brain stops seeing anxiety as dangerous, then you’re less likely to get anxious about being anxious. You only have to deal with one anxiety (the original anxiety), not two (the original + what you add to it). The fear-cycle is interrupted, and your nervous system can naturally return to its baseline level.
Practicing this new attitude of acceptance is important. Attitudes can be learned, and acceptance can be strengthened. It takes time, but the time you put in can reward you tenfold.
When can you give it a try?