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How to Turn Bad Anxiety Into Good Anxiety

Anxiety can feel like a heavyweight that we didn’t ask to carry. Who wouldn’t love to get rid of it?

But neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki wants to challenge the way we look at our anxiety. In fact, her new book is called Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion.

If you’re skeptical, so was I. But Suzuki’s point is that anxiety is a natural human emotion, one that evolved to serve a purpose. We feel anxious when there is some kind of danger; it primes our body to fight or flee from that danger, in hopes that we’ll end up better off (i.e., alive). In the same way, our modern anxieties can be a warning signal for things that are wrong: not enough rest, too much multitasking, isolation from others. Our anxious energy alerts us to change our lives for the better, she argues.

“If we simply approach it as something to avoid, get rid of, or dampen, we not only don’t solve the problem but actually miss an opportunity to leverage the generative power of anxiety,” she writes.

To do that, we first need to turn down the volume of our anxiety, so that we can listen to what it has to say. Meant for people with everyday anxiety (not anxiety disorders), Good Anxiety explains how to do that in order to make your life more productive, creative, and connected. In our Q&A, Suzuki highlights some of the ideas from her book.

Kira M. Newman: How is good anxiety different from bad anxiety?

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D.

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D. © Matt Simpkins Photography

Wendy Suzuki: My simple definition of anxiety is the feeling of fear or worry typically associated with situations of uncertainty. Whatever it is—I don’t know what grade I’m going to get, I don’t know if I’m going to have enough money to do what I want to do, I don’t know whether I should get the booster shot for COVID-19—all of these things contribute to the uncertainty that triggers anxiety.

I call the book Good Anxiety because the emotion of anxiety, which is part of our normal human emotional landscape, and that underlying stress response that comes when we have anxiety, evolved to protect us. In fact, as we evolved, it was critical for our survival because back in those times, most of our threats were physical threats to our lives—lions, tigers, and bears. If there was that crack of a twig that launched you into anxiety, then it was absolutely critical that you had this stressful fight-or-flight response so that you could either fight the bear or run away from the bear.

Good anxiety comes with a better awareness that anxiety is protective, and going through all the exercises and using the tools in my book allows you to take advantage of what anxiety originally evolved to do, which is to put us into action that will give us a better outcome.

Today, I’m the first to acknowledge that nobody is feeling particularly protected by their anxiety, but the reason for that is that we have the equivalent of twigs cracking all around us all the time: the weather reports, the news cycle, Instagram, all of these things are perceived as threats and cause for worry, fear, anxiety.


KMN: What is the difference between good and bad anxiety in the body?

WS: Chronic Anxiety and stress are very, very bad for basically all our systems in our bodies. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can first damage and then kill cells in two key areas of the brain that we need for optimum performance: the hippocampus (critical for long-term memory) and the prefrontal cortex (critical for focus and decision making). But it’s not just the brain. Chronic anxiety has detrimental effects on your heart, on your immune system.

Good anxiety is basically, going back to 2.5 million years ago, how it evolved to be helpful; it is that warning system that helps put you into action, but then it subsides. Most people have all heard of the fight-or-flight system—that’s the stress system, it makes your heart rate go up and you can run away really fast. Well, people don’t realize that through evolution in parallel with the fight-or-flight system evolved an equal and opposite part of our nervous system that’s nicknamed the “rest-and-digest” part of the nervous system, or parasympathetic nervous system. It’s basically the de-stressing part of our nervous system. That is what we need to activate to bring ourselves back to equilibrium when we’re in a stressful state.

KMN: You have a whole section of the book with lots of different tools to help us decrease bad anxiety. How do we figure out where to start?

WS: Let me give everybody my top two go-to’s for using the tools to decrease anxiety because they’re fast, they’re easy, they work, and there’s a lot of science behind them, including science that I’ve done in my lab.

So tool number one is breathwork. Just simple, deep breathing. I recommend a box breathing approach: inhaling on a four-count, holding at the top for four counts, exhaling on a four-count, holding at the bottom for four counts. This works because it is literally activating that parasympathetic nervous system. There’s a reason why monks for hundreds and hundreds of years have turned to breathwork to calm themselves down, to get into a meditative state. They may not have known the term “parasympathetic nervous system,” but that is exactly what that deep breathwork is doing.

Number two go-to is moving your body. I’m not talking about marathon running—I’m talking about going outside, walking around the block, walking around your dining room table if you are isolating. Moving your body is activating a whole bunch of neurochemicals released in your brain. I like to say that every single time you move your body, it’s like you’re giving your brain a wonderful bubble bath of neurochemicals, including dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. I’m sure people have noticed that when they go for a walk, they go outside when they can’t take it anymore, they feel better when they come back.

I start with the breath because it’s easiest to do. You can do it in the middle of an anxiety-provoking situation, and nobody even knows you’re doing it (it’s hard to do some jumping jacks in the middle of an anxiety-provoking situation, that’s a little bit awkward).

KMN: What interesting research about anxiety would be helpful for readers to know about?


WS: I will share some of the most recent findings from my lab; these are preliminary data where we started to look at really short interventions. Sometimes you don’t have 45 minutes to go to a full meditation class or listen to a full lecture on mindset, so we looked at five and 10-minute interventions of either breathwork or chair yoga that are easy to do at work, or at your dining room table.

These have turned out to be significantly effective for the immediate reduction of anxiety levels, which is great. YouTube gives you free access to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of short and long yoga, breathwork, even short movement exercises. Not to mention songs if you just want to stand up and dance, which is one of my favorite ways to move your body, especially if you’re all alone dancing in your living room.

Have these things in your back pocket so you’re not searching on YouTube as your anxiety attack is developing. It can be five, 10 minutes of this activity that can significantly decrease your anxiety levels.

KMN: What do we tend to do in those moments when we’re starting to feel anxious that is counterproductive? 

WS: I think it’s very common to start to be anxious about being anxious, so you have a meta-anxiety going on. You’re feeling yourself going into anxiety and that just makes you even more anxious and brings you down into the void of anxiety even faster.

The goal or the promise of Good Anxiety is that when you start to feel that—instead of saying, “Oh no, I’m starting to feel anxious, what do I do?”—you have 10 possible things that you can do right now (depending on the situation) that you’ve already tested, that you know you can do, that you know you like, that can immediately work. Pull it out of your back pocket, use it right there, and that will quell your anxiety.

KMN: What do people do once they’ve turned down the volume of anxiety? 


WS: Step two is learning about what that anxiety is telling you about your values, your life, your lifestyle. You can ask yourself: Why did I get anxious? What caused that? What can I understand about this that I could address in the future, perhaps in a different way? Once you turn the volume down on anxiety, it allows you to step back and learn and contemplate what this anxiety is telling you about your values, about how you’re living your life, about the patterns in your life.

That thing that causes me anxiety may never change. I’ve had many of my anxieties from the time that I was very little. I talk a lot about my own anxieties since I covered them in the book, and one of the oldest that I talk about is social anxiety. I was a very, very shy, awkward kid. All through high school and college, I always had that fear of asking questions in class, and to this day I get scared of social situations.

So I find myself thinking, “OK, well that’s always going to be there, how can I make that easier for myself?” So, go with friends, make sure I have somebody (either a new friend or an old friend) that I can talk to that eases my way in. While I have social anxiety and it always makes me nervous to make new friends, I have this human desire to be part of a social group, and my dear friends are some of the most comforting elements in my whole life.

KMN: And the third step in this process is to reap the benefits of anxiety? What does that mean?

WS: There are six different gifts or superpowers that I talk about, and the easiest one to understand and implement for anybody is the superpower of productivity that comes from your specific anxiety.

Here’s how that works. A very, very common manifestation of anxiety is that “what if” list that comes in your head: What if I get sick with COVID, what if I don’t get an A, what if I can’t remember what the professor said on this part of the test?

The superpower that comes with that anxiety-induced what-if list is shifting that into a to-do list. So, you’re worried about failing a particular exam. Obviously, to-do: Find a friend to study with, find a tutor, study these particular three lectures that were confusing to you.

Everything, including existential threats of global warming—what if the world gets too hot?—there are 10 things that everybody can do to decrease their carbon footprint, and it takes a single Google search to figure that out and to actually do it. I haven’t been confronted with anything that it doesn’t work for.

Good anxiety is using the activation energy of that anxiety-induced stress response to get something done, to take that warning signal and do something with it, whether that’s a study for that test, or make that appointment for your vaccination if you choose to do so, or consult your financial advisor if you’re worried about money. In completing the to-do, you help resolve that feeling of anxiety, and it makes you more productive.

KMN: What else would you like readers to know?

WS: I guess I would say that my wish for everybody who reads the book and dives into all the tools is that they come out with a more fulfilling, more creative, and overall less stressful life in bringing these tools and approaches into their lives to flip their bad anxiety to good. That’s what I found as I’ve practiced these tools, and so that is what I hope for all of the readers.

About the Author

Kira M. Newman

Kira M. Newman is the managing editor of Greater Good. Her work has been published in outlets including the Washington Post, Mindful magazine, Social Media Monthly, and Tech.co, and she is the co-editor of The Gratitude Project. Follow her on Twitter!




Can We Help Young Brains Fight Off Anxiety?

By Jill Suttie | Greater Good Magazine

Anxiety is one of the most common childhood mental disorders. About 7% of children suffer from it at any given time, with nearly 1 in 3 adolescents experiencing it sometime during their teen years.

For an anxious child, seemingly normal activities can be hard. Worried kids have trouble adjusting to school, making friends, and learning. They can feel inhibited, avoiding challenges by running away or retreating into themselves. While parents may feel desperate to help, their approaches can backfire. For example, trying to talk kids out of their feelings or keep them away from anxiety-producing situations may inadvertently make the anxiety worse.

To help anxious kids, clinicians have developed science-based treatments, like cognitive-behavioral therapy, to alleviate symptoms. But the treatments can be cumbersome and expensive, and they don’t always work. Anxiety in kids as young as preschool-aged can be a sign of future trouble—a precursor to later disorders, like social anxiety, phobias, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. But less is known about how to stop anxiety in its tracks at very young ages, when kids may not even have the cognitive capacity to benefit from the treatment.

What if very young kids could be inoculated against anxiety somehow, sparing them from a future of worry and inhibition? A new line of research conducted by Kate Fitzgerald, professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics at the University of Michigan, suggests this may be possible.

Fitzgerald has been studying very young children with anxiety symptoms and making important discoveries about the brain markers for childhood anxiety. Building on this work, she and her team have created a training program for young children aimed at increasing their cognitive capacities, helping to lessen their anxiety—both immediately and, possibly, in the future.

“We hope our work will show that childhood anxiety is not inevitable, but might be prevented with the right intervention,” says Fitzgerald. “So far, it’s looking promising.”

The neuroscience of anxiety

When we face challenging or scary situations in life, our brains naturally go into action. The amygdala sends out neurochemicals (like adrenaline) to make our hearts pound and prepare our bodies to “fight-flight, or freeze” in case of danger. At the same time, the frontal lobes engage our cognition to assess the situation, draw from past experience, and problem-solve to come up with an appropriate response. In healthy people, these dual systems work in tandem—one putting on the gas and the other applying the brakes—depending on what’s needed.

In the context of this process, a little bit of anxiety can have a positive side—like when it motivates us to practice hard to master a piano piece or study for a test. But, in anxious people, that gas pedal goes to the metal every time, making them want to run or flee challenge. It can be debilitating and exhausting, too, as they often have to exert a lot of effortful control just to get through. Facing stressful situations while tamping down that fear response is key to overcoming anxiety—in adults as well as older kids.

But in young kids, Fitzgerald and her team are discovering, the brain may respond a little differently. For example, four to seven-year-olds have a higher-than-normal startle response in “neutral situations”—where nothing threatening is happening—but have a normal startle response in scary situations that any child might react to. That suggests that they have more to overcome when facing everyday challenges, like going to school or meeting new people.

Her team has also discovered that a part of the brain that responds when people make a mistake—the error-related negativity (or ERN)—is weaker in anxious five to seven-year-olds than in worried older children and adults. That’s likely because young kids don’t have well-developed cognitive capacities that could help them understand that errors happen, aren’t scary, and can often be fixed. Without more cognitive control, their startle response wins out, making them anxious, says Fitzgerald.

A young child with low cognitive control is also more likely to develop anxiety later on in childhood, while one with a higher capacity will be more resilient to stress. Raising cognitive control (which can be measured by the ERN) could both treat anxiety in young children and potentially prevent it from becoming worse over time.

“If we could just help kids gain some cognitive control when they are anxious, it could really make a difference in how they deal with stressful situations,” says Fitzgerald. “We just need to empower them.”

Preventing harmful anxiety

To test this idea, Fitzgerald and her colleagues conducted a pilot study (as yet unpublished) with anxious four to seven-year-olds. The children came to a “camp” the researchers designed called Kid Power for four half-day sessions over two weeks. At the camp, children played fun, ordinary childhood games, like “Simon Says” and “Red Light/Green Light,” that help strengthen cognitive control.

Counselors at the camp gradually increased the challenge within the games to help kids master the skills needed to do well—like being flexible, using their working memory, and inhibiting undesirable responses (like moving when they’re supposed to freeze). They also enjoyed the company of other kids, with whom they brainstormed ways to improve their performance. And parents participated at the end of each session, learning the games from their kids so they could practice playing together at home.

To see the effects this training had on the kids’ brains and behavior, Fitzgerald and her colleagues measured their startle response and ERN before they attended the Kid Power camp and four to six weeks after. To do that, they had kids play computer games that required cognitive control while wearing special monitors that could capture their startle and ERN responses when they made mistakes. Additionally, the researchers gathered information from the parents and the kids themselves about anxiety symptoms before and after the camp.

After analyzing the data, the team found that the children’s ERNs increased (signifying greater cognitive control), while their startle responses went down—a pattern associated with less anxiety at that age.

“The brain signal that related to detecting an error actually increased, but in a good way,” said Fitzgerald. “Kids were getting better at doing hard things, stopping instinctual responding, including the fear response.”

This mirrored the children’s (and their parents’) own assessments. They reported fewer anxiety symptoms, including fear and avoiding challenging situations, after the training—something Fitzgerald found particularly rewarding.

“It’s exciting to link the brain to behavior, but what’s even more rewarding is the individual children we’ve seen go through the program who are experiencing fewer anxiety symptoms,” she says.

For example, one parent reported that her daughter, who’d had symptoms of the obsessive-compulsive disorder prior to attending the Kid Power camp, had made a noticeable improvement, even while the camp was still going on.

“She didn’t want to leave while she was here, and she was in a better mood during the week in between—a little less rigid and able to experience more joy,” the parent wrote in an evaluation.

Fitzgerald recalls another five-year-old camper who’d been very afraid of making mistakes in his kindergarten class, which led to bouts of crying and other disruptive behaviors, requiring daily calls home. After attending the camp, though, and learning how to calm anxiety, everything changed.

“After a week of playing those games that were part of the intervention, those calls from home stopped,” says Fitzgerald. “His mom was impressed because earlier counseling with a trained therapist had not led to improvement. Only after Kid Power did he successfully adjust to kindergarten and begin to enjoy it.”

With encouraging results from this pilot study, Fitzgerald applied for and received a $3 million National Institutes of Health grant to expand the Kid Power program and conduct further research. She hopes future studies will help her nail down the key ingredient in the program that led to reduced anxiety and, potentially, find a way to tailor treatment to individual children—some of whom may need a stronger dose of the training or slightly different activities to improve, she says.

If her initial findings hold, her work could have broad implications, providing a template that others can follow for treating and preventing childhood anxiety disorders in the future.

“Interventions are within reach,” she says. “As we work to understand the science behind anxiety in young minds, we can use that science to develop treatments that are more effective.”

This article was originally published by AIM Youth Mental Health, a non-profit dedicated to finding and funding promising youth mental health research that can identify solutions to make a difference in young people’s lives today, which contributed to funding Kate Fitzgerald’s research. Read the original article.

About the Author
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Jill Suttie

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s former book review editor and now serves as a staff writer and contributing editor for the magazine. She received her doctorate of psychology from the University of San Francisco in 1998 and was a psychologist in private practice before coming to Greater Good.




How Anxiety Hides in Your Habits

By Kira M. Newman | Greater Good Magazine

I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of reading the same tips over and over about how to calm down and destress. I’m tired of trying to slow down my breathing when my chest feels heavy and question the worst-case scenarios running around my head.

That’s why psychiatrist Judson Brewer’s new book Unwinding Anxiety is so refreshing. Yes, it has some tips—but they don’t come until much later in the book. In fact, his whole point is that tips alone won’t help those of us who struggle with anxiety.

Brewer shows how anxiety exists inside the habits that make up our everyday lives, and habits are sticky. They won’t go away just because we tell ourselves to breathe— because, as crazy as it sounds when talking about anxiety, our brain is attracted to these habits because they create some sense of reward.

Implementing tips and tools skips an important step, Brewer argues. Before we can try to change anything, we have to spend some time observing our anxiety-related habits. Only then—by showing our brain viscerally how unrewarding these habits are—can we move to actually create new ones.

Unwinding Anxiety offers a three-step process to help you do exactly that, backed up by Brewer’s extensive habit research. While many well-being books can feel overwhelming, his approach is reassuring in its simplicity but different enough to feel like it just might work.

Step one: Map out anxiety habits

If you struggle with anxiety, it’s likely that anxiety has become a habit for you, writes Brewer. Many of our habits have developed to help us reduce stress or satisfy emotional needs, he explains, even if they don’t always benefit us long-term. Our habits exist in loops that consist of a trigger, a behavior, and a result. For example:

Trigger: Feel anxious
Behavior: Eat something sweet
Result: Be distracted from anxiety

Sometimes anxiety can trigger a habit loop, but it can also be the result in a habit loop:

Trigger: Feel unmotivated at work
Behavior: Read news
Result: Feel anxious about the state of the world

But the most pernicious anxiety-related habit is this basic pattern, which many of us fall into, where anxiety reinforces itself:

Trigger: Feel anxious
Behavior: Worry (ruminate on what’s wrong, what could go wrong, etc.)
Result: Feel more anxious

What reward could we possibly get out of a self-perpetuating anxiety cycle? Well, Brewer explains, the act of worrying can sometimes feel good—or at least better than just sitting with our anxiety. Worrying sometimes (rarely) allows us to come up with solutions, which makes it seem productive; we think we’re solving problems. Some of us are afraid we’ll be unprepared for the future if we don’t worry, and worry can give us a sense of control over the situation, even when all we do is go over and over the same fears.

In one of Brewer’s studies (currently under peer review), becoming aware of worry habit loops made people less anxious—and, for doctors, reduced their burnout and cynicism. But mapping out your habits is just the first step.

Step two: Work with your brain’s reward system

As Brewer explains, our brain stores a “reward value” for different people, places, and things we encounter. The more rewarding our brain thinks a behavior is, the stronger the habit around it will be.

But reward values can become skewed or outdated. For example, we might have developed a passion for cake as an anxious teen—but in adulthood, we now find ourselves in a queasy sugar coma after three slices.

“The only sustainable way to change a habit is to update its reward value,” writes Brewer. That means taking a fresh look at how a habit is affecting us now. And we need to do this over and over, each time we repeat the habit in our daily life until our brain updates its reward value and stops being drawn to the habit.

What does this mean in practice?

Once you’ve identified your habits that support anxiety, you need to be mindful when they occur. If you’re anxious and you start worrying about the future, make a mental note; observe the tightness in your chest, the lump in your throat, how little you get done at work that afternoon.

The good thing about this approach is that moments of anxiety become an opportunity to learn about yourself, not something to be afraid of, and not a failure in your quest for Zen. (Self-judgment, apparently, seems to go hand in hand with anxiety.)

If you have trouble being aware of habits in real-time, you can also look back on your day or your week to see the effects of a particular behavior. If your anxiety made you snap at your partner, how did that feel? Rather than analyzing it, just try to re-experience it in your body.

Over time, Brewer suggests, our brain will naturally become disenchanted with our anxiety habits without us having to use so much willpower, allowing more space for new habits to form.

Step three: Create new habits

This step is where most other advice begins: the healthy habits and behaviors that we want to engage in. But it makes sense that there isn’t much room for these new behaviors until our brains detach from the old ones.

Brewer suggests a variety of mindfulness-related behaviors that you could insert into your habit loops when a trigger arises, many of which may be familiar to you already:

  • Curiosity and mindfulness: Rather than judging yourself for being anxious, or getting obsessed about where your anxiety is coming from, just get curious. What does it feel like, and where? How does it change? Brewer even recommends saying “Hmmm!” out loud to yourself, to encourage that sense of curiosity.
  • Breathing: Tune in to the breathing sensations in your body. Breathe into places where anxiety shows up, and breathe out anxiety. See how things change.
  • RAIN: This is a mindfulness practice where you Recognize and relax into the present moment; Accept and allow it to be there; Investigate your bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts; and Note what is happening.
  • Noting: This is a practice of labeling what experiences are predominant in your mind from moment to moment, including any of your senses (hearing, touch, sight), thinking, or feeling.
  • Loving-kindness: The practice of sending kind, caring thoughts to people, including yourself, and feeling that sense of warmth in your body.

To reinforce these habits, Brewer explains, you can apply techniques from step two—but this time, instead of observing the detrimental effects, you observe how good it feels in your body to be curious or generate loving feelings.

Brewer is a habit expert—much of his research has focused on smoking and eating disorders—and although his book is about anxiety, the overall framework could apply to many habits in our lives. His insights reveal why so many of our good intentions to exercise, meditate, and otherwise, self-improve don’t translate into action. Brewer’s book gives us the tools to work with our brains, rather than constantly feeling like we’re fighting against ourselves.

About the Author
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Kira M. Newman

Kira M. Newman is the managing editor of Greater Good. Her work has been published in outlets including the Washington PostMindful magazine, Social Media Monthly, and Tech.co, and she is the co-editor of The Gratitude ProjectFollow her on Twitter!




8 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Struggling with Anxiety

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By Lori Deschene | Tiny Buddha

“Sometimes just being there is enough.” ~Unknown

It felt like I couldn’t breathe. Like someone was holding me by the neck, against a wall, and the floor might drop beneath us at any moment.

I’m describing a panic attack, but this has actually happened to me before—being held by the neck against a wall, that is, not the other part. Growing up I experienced many moments like that, moments when I felt unsafe, physically and emotionally.

There were countless experiences that reinforced to me, over the years, that I couldn’t let my guard down, because at any moment I could be hurt.

So I learned to be constantly anxious, eternally on guard, ever ready for a threat. I learned to be tightly wound, my fight-or-flight response permanently triggered.

Related Article: An Estimated 40 Million Americans Suffer from Anxiety – Here’s How to Deal with It Naturally

And I learned to see minor threats as major problems, because that’s another thing I learned as a kid: Sometimes seemingly small things could make other people snap.

Unsurprisingly, I grew into an adult who snapped over small things all the time.

Got bleach on my interview outfit? No one will ever hire me now!

She doesn’t want to be my friend? Why doesn’t anyone love me?

Found a suspicious lump? I’m going to die!

Okay, so that last one isn’t actually a “small thing,” but the point is I was constantly scared. Life was a string of lions to tame, and I lived in a land without chairs.

I believe my early experiences, being bullied in varied environments, led to my years of depression and anxiety. For you or your loved one, there may be other causes.

Some people are genetically predisposed to anxiety, some struggle because of stressful circumstances, and for some, physical conditions play a role.

But this isn’t a post about what causes anxiety. This is a post about what not to say when someone’s panicking.

Anxiety can completely overwhelm your mind and body, and we often exacerbate our pain by being cruel to ourselves in our head.

“Get it together!” we scream at ourselves. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you such a mess?”

But none of these thoughts are helpful. Though the people who love us are generally not as cruel, they sometimes say less than helpful things, as well, solely because they don’t know any better.

Even as someone who has experienced anxiety, I have said some of the things below to others because it feels powerless to see someone struggling. And when you feel powerless, it’s hard to think straight.

All you know is that you want to fix it for them. You want to have answers. But sometimes when we’re in fix-it mode, despite our best intentions, we inadvertently add fuel to the fire.

So, as someone who’s been on both sides of the coin, I’d like to share some phrases to avoid when someone is dealing with anxiety, and offer a little insight into what actually helps.

Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Struggling with Anxiety

1. What you’re stressing about won’t even matter in a year.

In many cases, this is true. If someone’s worrying about a minor car accident, it’s entirely likely what they’re stressing about won’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. But this isn’t a universally true statement.

A minor accident could lead to major car trouble, which could lead to missing work, which could lead to lost pay, which could lead to getting evicted. And that could very well matter in a year. Is this chain of events likely? No, but it’s still possible.

It’s not reassuring to tell someone the worst-case scenario won’t happen because sometimes, it does. But more importantly, in that moment when someone is in the midst of anxiety, it feels catastrophic, and you can’t rationalize those feelings away—at least not immediately.

Related Article: 7 Painless Ways to Release Anxiety & Relax

When someone is panicking, they don’t need logic; they need validation. They need validation that yes, life is uncertain and “bad” things do happen, and validation that it’s okay to feel scared.

They also need a reminder that in this moment, they are safe. And that’s all they need to think about right now: breathing and grounding themselves in this moment in time.

2. Life’s too short to worry. 

All this does is create more anxiety, because in addition to whatever that person was initially stressing about, they now have to worry that they’re missing out on life because of an emotional response that feels beyond their control.

Yes, life is short. And we all naturally want to make the most of it. But you wouldn’t tell a diabetic “Life is too short to have too much sugar in your blood.” Sure, you’d encourage them to make healthy food choices, but you’d realize this phrasing would vastly oversimplify the effort required from them to manage their condition and maintain healthy habits.

The same is true of anxiety. Anyone who’s struggled with it understands there are far better ways to live, and this knowledge pains them. What they may not know is how to help themselves.

3. Calm down.

“Calm down” is the goal, not the action step. It’s what we all want to do when we’re panicking. It’s the shore in the distance, and it can feel miles away as we gasp for air in the undertow of emotion and struggle to stay afloat.

If you know any good methods that help you calm yourself—deep breathing exercises, for example—by all means, share them. But it’s probably best not to get into much detail in the moment when someone is panicking.

Imagine someone hanging off a cliff, about to fall into a pit full of tigers. That’s what anxiety can feel like.

If you were to stand at the edge and scream, “COME TO YOGA WITH ME TOMORROW! DID YOU KNOW THAT YOGA CAN HELP YOU…” that person would likely be too consumed by their terror to hear you your convincing argument.

What they need to hear in that moment is “Take my hand!” And the same is true of anxiety. Hold their hand. Help them breathe. Help them come back into the moment. Then, when they feel safe, that’s a good time to tell them what’s helped you.

That’s another important thing to remember: We all want to hear what’s helped other people deal, not what someone who’s never experienced our struggles has read about. Share your experience, not your expertise. None of us need a guru; we need friends who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable.

4. It’s no big deal. 

This comes back to the first point: In that moment, it feels like a big deal. A very big deal. It feels like the biggest, scariest, worst thing that could happen, and you can’t turn that fear off like a switch.

When someone says, “It’s not a big deal,” the anxious mind translates this as “You’re overreacting—which is further proof that you’re broken.”

Instead, try, “I know it’s hard. And scary. But you’re not alone. I’m here to help you get through this.”

It’s amazing how much it helps when someone reinforces that it’s okay to be scared—it’s human, even—but we don’t have to face it alone.

5. It’s all in your head. 

Yes, thoughts and fears all originate in our head, but that doesn’t make our feelings any less real. The anxious mind translates “It’s all in your head” as “Your head is defective,” because knowing that thoughts fuel anxiety doesn’t make it any easier to stop thinking anxious thoughts.

When we’re thinking anxious thoughts, what we need is a reminder that they often arise naturally—for all of us. We don’t need to worry about changing them. We just need to practice accepting them when they arise and disengaging from them.

So try this instead: “I can understand why you’re thinking those thoughts. I’d probably think some of the same things if I were in your shoes. If you want, you can tell me all your anxious thoughts. They’re trying to protect you in their own way, so maybe they just need to be heard and then they’ll quiet a bit.”

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