| Seven Steps to Overcoming Anxiety
by John Cunyus, Ph.D.
Home Self-Help & Healing
We live in anxious times. From threats as large as global warming
and terrorism to aggravations as small as traffic and children’s
activities, anxiety knocks at our doors. Worrying is what we do.
It’s really not a question of ‘can we get rid of it.’ Anxiety seems to
be built into the pace of modern life. The question is ‘how can we
cope with it?’
I confess to being a worry-wart. I’ve worried about what will become
of my family. I’ve worried about finances. I’ve worried about health,
my own and others. I’ve even worried about worrying so much.
Funny as it sounds, anxiety is no laughing matter. Anxiety and the
stress that provokes it are among the leading causes of disease
today. According to clinical psychologist Leslie LeCron, stress
accounts for as much as 85% of all trips to the doctor.
Given skyrocketing medical costs and the difficulty of finding and
affording good health insurance, learning to deal effectively with
anxiety can pay large dividends for us all. So how do we do it?
At present, there are two primary approaches. The first approach
simply ignores the anxiety and pushes ahead. While some people
are able to do that, others are crushed by the weight of it. Ignoring
the problem is not a viable response for most.
We can also deal with anxiety medically. Pharmaceutical
companies have made great strides in the last couple of decades in
bringing us effective, anti-anxiety medications. If you suffer from
severe anxiety, be sure to talk to your doctor about it.
Is there a third way between ignoring the problem and medicating
it? There is. The third involves becoming more aware of what we
are feeling, then learning how to cope with the feelings. Here are
seven steps for doing just that.
Step One: Acknowledge the feeling. Many times we’re not even
aware of our anxiety. We stopped listening to that inner voice long
ago. We may be aware of how aggravating our co-workers are or
how irritating our family can be. We find ourselves mad at
everyone or withdrawing from contact with others. Perhaps the
problem isn’t our co-workers or family members at all. Maybe we’re
just anxious about the future and don’t know how to cope with it.
Learning to say “I’m anxious” can be a huge step forward. We can’t
change all the frustrating situations we face in life, after all. We
can't deal with all the things “out there” that make us worry. But we
can deal with the worry itself, once we know that it’s there. Worry
and anxiety are emotions. Mature people are able to deal with
Step Two: Look past presenting symptoms and look for the
genuine sources of anxiety. We think something “out there” causes
our anxiety. It may stress us when our children yell, when things
don’t go well at work, when there’s just too darn much to do.
My experience says that such things awaken our anxiety. They don’
t cause it. Until we trace the anxiety back to its real cause, we
aren't likely to deal with it effectively.
For instance, maybe I find myself getting anxious when my children
make too much noise around the house. Yet children are
supposed to make noise around the house! It’s what they do.
The problem isn’t with them, necessarily. It’s with me. I’m anxious
about the future. I’m worried about getting my work done. When
the children yell, I’m reminded on some level of the unfinished
business in my life. Coping means learning to look beyond the
things that trigger our anxiety. It means looking toward the real
Step Three: See your situation exactly as it is, avoiding extremes.
When stress stacks up, it’s easy to believe things are worse than
they are. This only makes our anxiety worse.
I’ve been through two difficult job changes in my life. After the
second one, my monthly income fell almost 75% over what it had
been before. Needless to say I worried about that. Most
reasonable people would.
But the situation is seldom as severe as our worries suggest. Even
though my income had fallen, I wasn’t standing still. I continued to
“plan my work and work my plan.” There was a pathway out of the
wilderness and I was following it.
It helps sometimes to look further back. My family had been
through economic turmoil before. Yet we always managed to keep
a roof over our heads and food on the table. We found ways of
When we’re anxious it’s so easy to see only the bad things in our
life. I don’t advocate ignoring bad things and pretending everything
is wonderful. But I encourage us when we’re feeling down to take
an honest, balanced look at the good things taking place too. I’m
confident we will be pleasantly surprised when we do.
Step Four: Have compassion for yourself! We are often our own
harshest critics. This is natural enough since we all know our
weaknesses inside out. But sometimes we need to give ourselves
Our houses, our children, our jobs, and our lives are not perfect.
All are flawed, some deeply so. Do you want to know a secret?
Everyone else has the same problems. However perfect someone
else’s life may seem to us, we can rest assured it doesn’t seem that
way to them.
If someone you cared for was going through a hard time, wouldn’t
you give them a pat on the back instead of a swift kick in the
backside? If they were making a good effort, doing the best they
could, wouldn’t you find a way to encourage them?
We need to do that for ourselves. As a former pastor it used to
amaze me how much some folks had to endure in life. So many
times they would come to me and express how disappointed they
were in themselves for feeling badly. I wondered, seeing what they
were going through, how they managed to get out of bed at all!
Give yourself a break! Treat yourself with compassion. Life is hard
enough for all of us. Very little good comes from making it worse.
Giving our self a break can take the form of positive self-talk.
When you face anxiety, talk to yourself the way a coach might talk
to a team. ‘I know this situation is tough. But I also know that
you've gotten through situations like this before. This is something
you know how to do. I’m confident you will do it well.’
Step Five: Remember that anxious thoughts and memories are
just that – thoughts and memories. We get stuck inside our own
thoughts and memories almost like getting stuck inside an
elevator. Like an annoying song that runs through our mind all
day, painful thoughts and memories can haunt us. Just as
sometimes we aren’t aware of the fact that we worry or that worry is
only an emotion, sometimes we forget that annoying thoughts are
Someone may have done something to us in the past. But when
we dwell on it in the present, it isn’t the event itself that haunts us –
it is the memory of it. When you catch yourself getting swept up in
negative thoughts, label those thoughts for what the are. Say,
‘That’s a negative thought.’
You’ll find that calling these things by name reduces their power. A
thought is just a thought. One goes and another comes. We may
not be able to keep a thought from coming, but we can say no to it
when it does. We can let it go, rather than fixating on it. We can
plant another, more positive, thought right beside it. We can do
this as often as we need to.
Negative thoughts are like a forest fire burning one direction. The
positive thoughts we plant beside them are like the counter-fires
the firefighters start, which blow into the main fire and knock it
down. Anxious thoughts, anxious memories are just that – no more
and no less than thoughts and memories. Keep them in
Step Six: Replace negative 'what ifs' with positive ones. Some of
us are only able to imagine the worst. What if I lose my job? What
if we can’t make the house payment? What if I no longer have
health insurance? What if it’s malignant?
Yet in most circumstances the worst does not happen. Life usually
falls somewhere in between! We get so accustomed to imagining
the worst, though, that it becomes next to impossible for us to
anticipate a good outcome.
This is a mental habit, no more and no less. Remember that habits
are built one action at a time. Habits are actions repeated so often
that we no longer have to consciously choose to do them. They’ve
If you find yourself in the habit of only imagining negative ‘what ifs,’
consciously start a new habit. For every negative ‘what if,’ plant the
seed of a positive ‘what if.’
Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m anxious about my job security. I
keep saying to myself, ‘What if I lose my job?’ as if that were the
end of everything. Once I become aware of that, I consciously
choose a different thought.
Instead of holding on to the negative what if, I replace it with a
positive one. Every time the worry over ‘What if I lose my job’
enters my mind, I follow it up with a positive what if. What if I don’t
lose my job and the situation improves? That’s also possible.
Once we discipline ourselves to consider positive what ifs, we find
there are more of them than we thought. I have lost things before
that seemed so important at the time! It was hard to imagine ever
getting over them!
You know what, though? I did get over them. In many instances
things got better for me, not worse, after the loss. By forcing myself
to consider a positive what if, I find more and more positives coming
into focus. I can imagine a positive outcome even when the thing I
Step Seven: When anxiety strikes do something constructive --
don't just sit there. This is a lesson we’ve been taught from the
beginning. When my children were little and would get anxious
about something, it never helped to just wallow in the anxiety with
them. It was almost always better to get them involved in something
else. It got their minds off the problem and into the present.
This is true with us, too. If you wake up at three in the morning and
can’t go back to sleep, get up and do something else! Anytime you
find yourself climbing that wall of worry, stop climbing and do
something else! You aren’t a little child anymore, so there probably
won’t be someone around to get you involved in something else.
You have to learn to do it for yourself!
In fact, overcoming anxiety and worry is mostly a matter of habit: a
habit of being aware of our thoughts and feelings; a habit of being
gentle with ourselves; a habit of seeing good possibilities and not
just poor ones; and a habit of getting up and doing something when
There’s nothing magical about any of these. None of them is
beyond our ability. It’s simply a matter of practicing them until they
become habits of their own.
Anxiety and worry are not things to take lightly. At times we do
actually need to ignore the anxiety and push on. Sometimes we
may be so anxious as to need medication. Most of the time,
though, we can overcome the anxiety ourselves , using tools we’ve
known about most of our lives.
Home Self-Help & Healing
John Cunyus is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.
His work may be viewed online at www.JohnCunyus.com
©2008, John G. Cunyus
All Rights Reserved.
|Steps in overcoming anxiety
1. Name the feeling.
2. Look for the sources.
3. See your situation exactly
as it is.
4. Be kind to yourself.
5. Remember that anxious
thoughts and memories are
just thoughts and memories.
6. Replace negative 'what ifs'
with positive ones.
7. Do something constructive;
don't just sit there.
©2006, John G. Cunyus
All Rights Reserved.