How to personify, externalize, and simplify your anxiety.
I love the Canadian Rockies, and a few years ago I had an opportunity to explore them. I was scheduled to teach in Vernon, British Columbia, and with only a two-hour drive, I could visit and hike trails throughout Mount Revelstoke National Park, which had several mountains topping 10,000 feet.
In the months preceding my talk, I excitedly plan for this extra excursion. I book a rental car, secure a bed-and-breakfast near the mountain, and plan my hike.
Later, I pull into the completely empty parking lot of Mount Revelstoke. I’m in a pristine environment. I can already see the snowcapped mountains and have it all to myself. Perfect. I head off, reminding myself to clap a few times as I get to each bend in the trail so as not to surprise any grizzlies since these 600-pound locals tend to amble down to the meadows in the fall to feed on the ripe berries.
It turns out I’m completely safe from the bears, but I am vulnerable to another predator: my obsessions. I begin to perseverate on a ridiculous topic that I am too embarrassed to reveal. I am exactly where I want to be right now, but I am totally not present. I am up in my head, and I am either obsessing or I am mad that I am obsessing. I see nothing of my surroundings because I can’t focus on anything external.
Then suddenly I have this thought: “What do you do for a living?!” This is enough to shake me out of my nightmare, and, just as quickly, up pops a plan. From that moment forward, anytime I hear myself obsess, I will subvocalize the following instruction to my obsession: “Thank you! Would you give that to me again?” Then I will turn my attention back to the Rockies.
I implement the plan instantly. I step back and hear my obsession, I ask for more, and then I turn back to my surroundings. Within eight seconds, up pops the obsession again. I repeat, “Thank you! [And with enthusiasm, too.] Would you give that to me again?” I allow not one moment’s thought about whether the obsessions will disappear. I focus only on mentally stepping back to notice each obsession when it arrives, asking for more, and then turning my attention back to my hike. I don’t check if it is gone, and I try to not even hope that it will be gone.
I remain committed to the strategy. I decide to act as though this is how I will respond even if these obsessions keep sounding off for the rest of my life. And then… it disappeared.
Ten minutes after I committed to this paradoxical response, the obsession is gone as quickly as it showed up.
We can use this same approach with any noisy worry or obsession that pops up. (Remember, this is part of our new strategy: to aggressively beat down the tall, brick walls that protect your old, firmly held beliefs about how to manage your worries.) You start by making three moves: Personify, externalize, and simplify.
- Personify: Give your disordered thinking an identity. Call it Anxiety. Or Worry Machine. Or Brutus. Call it what you will!
- Externalize: Perceive it outside of you — not as a part of you, but in a relationship with you.
- Simplify: Reduce this relationship down to its bare bones. Anxiety gives you messages that you are weak in the face of threat, that you are not capable of stepping forward, and that you need to listen very carefully to its instructions and back away from this threat.
Now, your task is to turn the tables on your challenger. Out there on Mount Revelstoke, I spoke directly to my obsessions with a simple, absurd, and paradoxical message: “I want more of what you’re dishing out.” Whenever we can engage the symptom in any way other than fearing it or fighting it, we have our best chance of beating it.
Anxiety needs you to give in to the panic. To run back to that parking lot and get in your car. To abandon your well-made plans to go hiking in the great outdoors. To run and hide and seek out comfort.
But no. You talk directly to your challenger. Who is the challenger at this moment? It’s Anxiety. It’s trying to scare you about your fear response.
Once you’ve told it to keep provoking you, put your attention back on the present moment. To be clear: You’re not trying to remove your uncomfortable feelings. It’s very likely they’re still there. But they don’t require your attention, so you are redirecting your focus.
Connect with your surroundings again until your worry or your physical discomfort grabs your attention once more. That’s how you apply this tactic as you take on a challenge.
You might be saying to yourself, “Oh goodie, I’ll be telling Anxiety to ‘give me more’ for decades to come.” But this is not a permanent change. You won’t forever have to beg for doubt or feign excitement at discomfort. However, it is an excellent starting place. Why? Because it shifts your consciousness away from resisting the present moment. When we fight against our current experience, Anxiety wins.
Adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry.