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How To Quiet Your Mind When You Feel Intense Anxiety

Kaia Roman
mbg Contributor By Kaia Roman
mbg Contributor
Kaia Roman is a freelance writer and communications consultant for people, projects, and products working towards a better world.

Nothing squashes our ability to "go with the flow" like worry and anxiety. For me, when anxiety creeps in, it takes up residence inside my head and makes itself totally comfy there. It tells me that I am likely to fail, that something bad will happen, that others don't like me. I remind myself of the saying, "Worry is like praying for what you don't want." But then, on top of whatever I'm worrying about — money, relationships, my kids — I start to worry about the fact that I'm worrying.

I get so stuck in a rut of negative thinking sometimes that I wonder if I will ever think a positive thought again. But, I do believe worrying and indulging your anxiety is nothing more than a habit. And just like nail biting, teeth grinding or any other pesky habit, it can be changed.

I have been pursuing the secret to changing my habit of anxiety-dwelling for a number of years. About 14 years ago, long before the Three M's (Marriage, Mortgage and Motherhood — which seem to be the source of most of my self-imposed anxiety of late), I found myself riding a train somewhere in Spain late one evening. I happened to be sitting next to a white-haired priest who struck me instantly as wise. He even smelled wise. And since I figured I might not have another chance to ask a wise priest the question that most deeply plagued my soul, I casually asked him, "So how do I stop negative thoughts and anxiety?"

He turned his kind brown eyes to me and smiled: "Leave your front door and back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don't serve them tea," quoting meditation guru Shunryu Suzuki. It sounded so simple. But just because it's simple doesn't mean it's easy.

So, I practice. And when anxiety shows up, I remember my priest-friend's words from that night on the train, and I open the doors. Here are some other tips and tricks I've picked up along the way:

1. When things are super hard, know that you're on the verge of a breakthrough.

In other words, this too shall pass. So start with asking questions: when your anxiety passes (which it will!), what lessons, what new skills, what new insights will you have? I tell this to myself and ask myself these same sorts of questions. And when I won't listen, I write it down. I put on some empowering music ("I Will Survive!") and I push forward to get to the breakthrough faster. Trusting that it will come makes the process much less painful.

2. Make a voice recording of your positive self to listen to when your negative self is talking too loudly.

This gem of advice came from my wise friend Julie, to whom speaking comes more easily than writing sometimes. Imagine yourself 30 days, 30 months, or even 30 years from now, speaking to today's you. Speak words of encouragement into a recorder, with all the wisdom that hindsight brings, knowing that "every little thing's gonna be alright." Listen to your recording as often as needed.

3. Permit the acute anxiety to just be.

Sometimes your resistance to worrying is worse than the initial feeling of anxiety itself. So cut yourself some slack. Examine what you're really worrying about. Is your worry helping the situation? Maybe it is. We worry because we care about something or someone, and that is a good thing. So switch the focus of the worry to the positive emotion behind the worry (such as the desire to be healthy, happy and comfortable) without condemning yourself for harboring negative thoughts.

4. Imagine how you want it to be instead.

We can't always change our current situations immediately, but we can imagine a different scenario in our heads. And that process of imagination is actually really productive, and instrumental in making changes in our lives. Did you know that the principles of quantum physics tell us that our brains don't know the difference between something that we experience for real and something that we imagine vividly? Well, we can use this to our advantage by harnessing the power of our imaginations to soothe ourselves when worry has got us down.

5. Distract yourself.

Look, a squirrel! Sometimes distraction is a great tactic for dealing with worry. Watch a funny movie, go out with friends, have sex — whatever it takes to ease the pressure gauge and get out of your head. I love to distract myself by escaping into a juicy novel; or, come to think of it, a juicy papaya can do the trick nicely too!

6. Give gratitude a try.

Why not try making a list of everything you're grateful for? It can't hurt, right? When I'm stuck in a downward spiral of worry and negative thoughts, I bust out my well-worn gratitude notebook and start making a list. I quickly realize that I have way more to be grateful for than to worry about, and it helps to put my mind at ease.

Ultimately, I know I cannot control most of the things and people around me. I could let this drive me crazy, or accept what I can control - which is how I feel. And I'm making it my goal every day to tip the scale towards feeling good while turning the volume down on worry.

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