Got anxiety? It’s not you. Really. By paying attention to your anxiety differently, you can move past it to focus more productively.
If there’s one word that comes up more than any other in my work with people who are overstressed, it’s the word “my.” “My” anxiety. “My” depression. “My” stress. My. My. My.
I hear it all the time. We don’t like feeling anxious or stressed. We say we’d like to let it go. And yet we wear our anxiety like a badge of pride. After all, it’s “mine.”
And therein lies the problem. Since when did the anxiety you experience become your prized personal possession? What made you think you need to make your anxiety (or depression or any other destructive mood or emotional state) the core of your identity?
Yet that’s what so many of us do. When we talk about “my anxiety,” “my stress,” "my” anything, we lock ourselves into an attentional prison with no way out.
After all, if it’s yours, then you own it. So how do you let it go? Each time you say “my” before whatever emotional state you’re experiencing, you’re holding on tight. If your anxiety is part of you, then it’s not going anywhere.
The Good News: You Don’t Actually Own Your Anxiety
When you experience anxiety, or even everyday stress – you experience it. You may even experience it intensely. But you don’t own it.
Connecting “my” to less than ideal emotional states may seem like a small thing. But that one little word makes a world of difference in how you relate to this emotional state you say you’d like to be rid of.
If you do experience anxiety, then you likely don’t experience it all the time. Sometimes you’re anxious. Sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you’re sad. Sometimes sadness is the farthest thing from your mind. Even if you’re depressed, unless you have a severe clinically diagnosed case, you’re not depressed every hour of the day. (This article provides steps to effectively combat depression by one of America’s top depression researchers.)
In other words, your anxiety, or any other emotional state, is not yours. It doesn’t belong to you. It’s not something you possess.
Rather, anxiety is a state of mind and emotion with which you have a relationship. It’s not “my” anxiety – no – you experience anxiety.
Sometimes. And sometimes you don’t.
Change Your Words, Change Your Life
By changing the words you use with yourself, you can change everything. Well, if not everything, you can change a lot.
Next time anxiety or some other emotional state appears, try this. Instead of telling yourself about “my anxiety” or "I have anxiety" or the like – tell yourself, “I am right now experiencing anxiety” or even better, “There is currently anxiety in my awareness.”
What’s the difference? The more you internalize that anxiety is something you experience, a state that can come and go, the more you gain control over it.
When anxiety becomes merely a state that you experience (or not), you quickly internalize that you don’t need to identify with it. You may experience it – but it is decidedly not you.
When you label anxiety as merely an experience, you put some space between you and it. You can then stand back and look at your anxiety from a distance.
You can dispassionately notice where you feel the anxiety in your body (it always manifests somewhere – most commonly as tension in the stomach, chest, shoulders or throat). You can viscerally feel “you” and also the separate anxiety that you may be experiencing, but which is not you.
You can then notice the specific thoughts that may be triggering your anxiety – again, dispassionately from a distance. And from there, it is much easier to let go of the anxiety.
The 48-Hour Challenge
If you want to do something about the anxiety you experience, or any other negative state, you’ll get there more quickly if you take specific and tangible actions rather than work with abstract theories. So rather than simply thinking about the idea that you experience anxiety rather than it being part of your identity, try this exercise.
For the next 48 hours, any time you find yourself saying or thinking “my” anxiety or other negative emotional state, deliberately pause, breathe, and slowly say, “I am merely experiencing anxiety.” Or devise your own statement to replace the mantra you’ve been repeating to yourself that closely identifies you with the anxiety.
Once you’ve used your replacement phrase, you can then take a moment to dispassionately observe your anxiety as previously described. And then you can imagine letting it go.
I strongly encourage you to write down your replacement phrase, or a word or two that enables you to recall it, and place your written phrase or word where you can easily see it. The most difficult part about this exercise is remembering to do it when you need it most. A visible written reminder solves the problem.
By deliberately making this wording change, you transform yourself from a passive recipient of emotions over which you seemingly have no control to an active manager of your emotional states.
When it’s “my” anxiety, then anxiety is something that’s part of you and that happens to you without you having much say in the matter. But when anxiety is something you experience that is not central to who you are, you are in a position to change it.
Why 48 hours? Because 30-day and 6-month challenges are nice, but it’s hard to follow through consistently with a new habit for that length of time. Most of us fall off after a few days.
By focusing – really focusing – on changing your language around anxiety for just 48 hours, you’ve got a much better shot at success. And once you’ve done this for 48 hours, you can resolve to do it for another 48 hours, and then another.
Pretty soon, you won’t need to resolve to change your language anymore. It’ll be a habit that you won’t need to think about. You’ll also notice by that point that you’re a lot less anxious than you used to be.