Give Your Anxiety a Giant Hug and It May Just Fade Away
A psychologist explains how self-compassion can help you manage chronic worry
Chronic anxiety is a persistent pattern of elevated worry and excessive fear, and it can feel insurmountable to those struggling with it. But if you adopt a new mindset about your anxiety itself, it’s possible to break this cycle. Here are three mind-shifts I’ve developed in my years as a psychologist to help free people from the grip of chronic anxiety for good.
1. Approach your anxiety with compassion, not aggression
Here’s a basic fact of human psychology everyone should know: You can’t control your emotions directly. You can only influence them indirectly via changes to your thinking and behavior.
There’s no anxiety dial you can turn down, no happiness button you can press, no sadness lever you can pull. And if you have no control over something — it follows that you can’t be responsible for it.
It makes no sense to judge yourself or be self-critical for how you feel emotionally. We all have different biological, psychological, and environmental contexts that influence our anxiety over time and in a given moment. We don’t choose our particular level of anxiety. If you’re going to judge yourself for feeling anxious, you might as well judge the sky for being cloudy.
When we consistently feel anxious, we tend to interpret our anxiety as a bad thing, something to be eliminated or fixed. This makes sense given how uncomfortable — even painful — it can feel. But just because something feels like a problem doesn’t mean it is one. Soreness after a workout feels bad, but it isn’t a bad thing. And it certainly isn’t an indicator that going to the gym is dangerous or wrong.
The mind’s threat detection system is programmed to look for possible threats and, when it encounters one, to activate our fight or flight system. But it also has a feedback mechanism built in which uses our own behavior to verify whether something we interpreted as dangerous was in fact dangerous. If you respond to your body’s fight or flight response by fighting or fleeing, you’re confirming the initial threat assessment. Instantly running away from every spider you encounter trains your brain to interpret all spiders as threats to your survival. The same is true for turbulence on a plane, confined spaces, or even the emotion of anxiety itself.
When you repeatedly try to run away from, or fight against, your anxiety, you’re teaching your brain to be afraid of its own threat response system. One of the most common ways we “fight” our own anxiety is by judging it and blaming ourselves for having it. We feel anxious, and attack ourselves for it, which leads to more anxiety and more attacking.
Having self-compassion for your anxiety means acknowledging your anxiety as natural and fundamentally okay even if it’s painful, scary, or irritating.
The way out of this vicious cycle is self-compassion: the practice of approaching your anxiety rather than trying to escape it or fight it.
Research by psychologist Kristin Neff has shown that self-compassion is a powerful tool for improving mental health and well-being, including anxiety. 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 — listening to it, validating it, offering support, and refraining from judgment.
If you want to eliminate chronic anxiety, take care to stop treating it like an enemy. How? Watch your self-talk around anxiety. Notice your habitual ways of interpreting what it means. Ask yourself, What would it look like to have a more compassionate attitude toward my anxiety?
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 that you’re unhappy with your sex life with your spouse.
Whatever the destination, 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 instinctively deal with the anxiety monster in one of two ways:
- We roll over submissively and let the anxiety monster drive. This looks like wallowing in worry and anxiety.
- The second and more common reaction is to try and throw the anxiety monster out the window to get rid of it. We pop a Xanax, argue with ourselves about how irrational our fear is, or distract ourselves with loud music or phone call with a friend, etc.
The problem with the first reaction is obvious: Unless you’re being chased by a bear or experiencing 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, a psychological phenomenon known broadly as experiential avoidance.
The implication, then, is that if you want to be free from anxiety, you must be willing to experience it. Gilbert goes on to describe how she finally learned to manage her fear by taking a new, third approach: She welcomed her fear to come along for the ride but insisted that it stay in the back seat. 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 and give it permission to come along for the ride (preferably in the back seat, or better yet, the trunk), we train our minds to stop being afraid of anxiety.
The beauty of this is that by resisting the pain and discomfort of temporary anxiety, we free ourselves from the suffering of chronic anxiety.
So, the next time your anxiety rears its ugly head, acknowledge it and welcome it along for the ride with genuine willingness. This is the only way to reduce its power in the long run.
3. Take full responsibility for your worry habit
These first two mindshifts help you escape the dangers of judging yourself for, and trying to control, the emotion of anxiety.
But there’s an equally potent danger in not taking responsibility for something you do have control over (however difficult it feels): your 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:
- 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 like I always do.
Worry is a tempting path to go down because it feels a lot like problem-solving — a helpful mental habit we all rely on in daily life.
The only difference between problem-solving and worry is that worry isn’t really helpful, and usually, it just makes things worse.
Worry happens when we try to problem-solve something that either isn’t really a problem or isn’t something we can solve right now.
Regardless of the initial cause, most of our chronic anxiety gets perpetuated and strengthened by the 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 anxiety worse in the long-run.
The conceptually simple but extremely difficult way to worry less 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 redirect your attention on to something else and hold it there.
Most of us are used to letting our attention get 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. In fact, even brief practice in mindfulness has been proven to improve attentional abilities and emotional control.
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.