How to Make ‘Friends’ with Anxiety: A Simple Technique to Gain Perspective

I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine. Nancy is her name.

Nancy’s the nervous type. She’s always second guessing and “what-iffing.” At times, she’s downright annoying.

To be honest, she’s not that much fun to be around. Still, she’s one of my people. I literally couldn’t live without her.

The truth is, Nancy is the name with which I’ve christened my anxiety. Negative Nancy is my exact name.

It may not be original, but it’s effective. Let me explain.

Anxiety is just a part and parcel of everyday life for many. More than that, it’s actually a hardwired survival response, also known as the fight-flight-or-freeze response. If we were, say, being chased by a tiger, we’d really want that anxiety to kick in, so we’d have the good sense to hightail it out of there.

However, anxiety can interfere with daily living.

In the absence of tigers, this ancient evolutionary response can still get triggered by less-than-tiger-sized events in the modern world.

This can lead to the once-helpful survival response becoming an obstacle to enjoying a life filled with joy and ease.

For me, it’s vitally important that I differentiate between the helpful thoughts and the unhelpful thoughts that belong in the garbage bin. This can make the difference between succumbing to unhelpful negative thoughts or having agency over them.

Nancy steps in.

The anxiety mechanism

When anxious thoughts take over, I remind my self that everything is fine. It’s just Nancy coming for a visit.

This silly, imaginary mechanism allows you to separate yourself from anxious thoughts and instead identify the pattern.

Then, I see the situation as it is. This is when my active survival response kicks into effect.

On top of that, personifying anxiety as a high-strung, well-meaning worry-wart gives me an opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of my overzealous amygdala, a part of the brain that becomes active when strong emotions are triggered.

Instead of getting caught up in negative thoughts loops, I can look at the situation from a different perspective and have a good laugh. Even in the worst cases, the interruption can actually shorten anxiety and leave me laughing at the irony.

Chatting with Nancy

Imagine a conversation with Nancy that goes something like this.

Situation: I made a mistake on an important deliverable at work.

An anxious thought “I’m going to get fired.”

My reply: “Hey Nance, welcome back! It’s obvious that you saw me mess up today on the work assignment. I appreciate your stopping by to check on my progress. In reality, the mistake was much smaller than you think. I’ve done some great work recently, too, so don’t worry about it!”

One little dialog like this can accomplish many things.

  • It gives me perspective and distance.
  • It stimulates my overactive brain in a constructive, creative way and not in an ineffective anxious pattern.
  • It makes you giggle.
  • It helps me to appreciate my anxiety.

Perspective

I find that the anxiety associated with anxious thoughts is often less severe when I give them a role.

This allows me a more objective approach to the situation and lets me decide whether the initial thought I had is really grounded in reality, or useful for me at this moment.

Creative engagement

One thing is certain: An anxious mind can be very creative. It can imagine scenarios that have no relevance to the present.

I enjoy giving my anxious brain a break, such as playing Nancy. It allows me to get away from my thoughts and not become too involved.

Humor

Making light of anxiety is one of my favorite ways to get back to a place of ease. This transforms a stressful situation into something fun, which takes away any feeling of sadness.

This isn’t meant to belittle the experience of anxiety, which I can attest is absolutely no fun at all. It’s simply a way to invite myself out of stress and into a state of lightheartedness.

I’m a believer in the old cliché that laughter is the best medicine. There’s research that laughter can reduce systolic blood pressureTrusted SourceYou can lower your heart rate and reduce stress hormonesTrusted Source.

2018 study noted that laughter can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the rest and digest response. Another study revealed that just hearing laughter can lead to relaxation.

Gratitude

Chatting with Nancy like she’s a well-intentioned, but slightly excitable, friend helps me reorient the experience of anxiety.

I instinctively want to flee from anxiety’s frightening, unsettling thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, pushing anxiety away only feeds the “flight” aspect of the stress response, often making it even bigger.

Nancy made a great effort to protect my interests. This is a reminder that my mind is working in many aspects. It’s simply looking out for me.

Give it a shot

These steps will help you put the technique to the test.

Name it

Come up with your anxiety alter ego’s identity.

Have fun and be creative with your names. I’m personally a huge fan of alliteration. Don’t skip this step, as naming the anxious thoughts can help you disidentify with them.

Get creative

Make a caricature that is outrageous.

Give them a collection of traits and character traits. Maybe they’re a doomsdayer always thinking the worst will happen. Maybe they’re an annoying neighbor who pops in at inconvenient times. The more exaggerated the better.

Think buckets

Preemptively decide what kind of thoughts belong to your anxiety doppelgänger and which ones belong to you. You can easily pass on your stress-out sidekick any thoughts that are not grounded in reality or unhelpful.

For instance, if you often get anxious about work topics, a thought like, “I’m going to get fired” can belong to your anxiety alter ego. A thought like, “I can try to do a better job next time” can belong to you.

It’s best to establish these categories before you’re in the heat of an anxious moment, not during. Once you already have your general buckets defined, you’ll have them at the ready when anxiety crops up.

Pro-tip: This technique also works for other hard to manage emotions, like anger, impatience, boredom, or fear.

Your anxiety isn’t you

Above all, naming anxiety and giving it a personality is a reminder that you don’t have to identify with it. While anxiety may be a part of the programming of your nervous system, it doesn’t define who you are.

Experiencing anxiety doesn’t mean you can’t also be adventurous, silly, lighthearted, or bold.

Anxiety is a feeling, and you’re so much more than that.

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