How to make ‘friends’ with anxiety: a simple technique to gain perspective
I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine. Her name is Nancy.
Nancy is the nervous type. She is always guessing and asking what’s up. At times, she is downright annoying.
To be honest, she’s not much fun to be around. Still, she is one of my people. I literally couldn’t live without her.
The truth is that Nancy is the name with which I have baptized my anxiety. Negative Nancy, to be exact.
It may not be original, but it is effective. Let me explain.
For many of us, anxiety is simply a part of life. More than that, it’s actually a programmed survival response, also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. If, for example, we were being chased by a tiger, we would really want that anxiety to kick in, so we would have the good sense to run out of there.
On the other hand, anxiety can interfere with daily life.
In the absence of tigers, this ancient evolutionary response can still be triggered by tiger-sized events in the modern world.
When this happens, the once-helpful survival response can become an impediment to living life with ease and joy.
For me, it is vitally important to differentiate between useful thoughts and useless thoughts that belong in the dump. This process can mean the difference between being subject to our unhelpful negative thoughts and having agency over them.
This is where Nancy comes in.
Every time I find myself in a situation where anxious thoughts start to take over, I remind myself that everything is okay. It’s just that Nancy is coming to visit.
Instead of identifying with the thoughts, this silly imaginary mechanism allows me to distance myself from the anxious thought and identify the pattern that unfolds.
Then I can see the situation for what it is: my active survival response kicks in.
On top of that, personifying anxiety as a nervous, well-meaning wart of worry gives me a chance to laugh at the absurdity of my overzealous amygdala, a part of the brain that is activated when strong emotions are triggered.
Instead of getting stuck in negative thought loops, I can step back and laugh at the situation. At its best, this interruption can even short-circuit my anxiety and leave me laughing at the irony of it all.
An imaginary conversation with Nancy might go something like this.
Situation: I made a mistake on an important deliverable at work.
anxious thinking: “I am going to be fired”.
My answer: Hi Nance, welcome back! I see you realized that I messed up on that assignment today. I appreciate you showing up to see how I was. The thing is, that mistake was actually much smaller than you think. I’ve also done some great work recently, so don’t worry about it!
A little dialog like this accomplishes several things:
- It gives me distance and perspective.
- It engages my overactive mind in constructive, creative play instead of an ineffective pattern of anxiety.
- Makes me laugh.
- It gives me appreciation for my anxiety.
By giving anxious thought a role to play, I often find that the severity of the emotion attached to the thought lessens.
This allows me to approach the situation more objectively and choose whether I think the initial thought is actually grounded in reality or is useful to me at the moment.
One thing is certain: the anxious mind can be incredibly creative. You can generate scenarios that have little to do with the here and now.
Giving my anxious brain a diversion, like playing the role of Nancy, is a way of disconnecting from my anxious thoughts, rather than getting stuck in them.
For me, making light of anxious feelings is one of the best ways to guide myself back to a state of calm. Turn a stressful situation into something playful, removing the feeling of heaviness.
This is not meant to belittle the experience of anxiety, which I can attest is not fun at all. It is simply a way of inviting me to get out of stress and enter a state of joy.
TO study 2018 noted that laughter can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the rest and digest response. The same study showed that simply listening to laughter can have a relaxing effect.
Chatting with Nancy as if she were a well-intentioned but slightly excitable friend helps me refocus the experience of anxiety.
My initial instinct is to run away from the scary and unpleasant thoughts and feelings that anxiety can cause. Unfortunately, pushing anxiety away only fuels the “flight” aspect of the stress response, often making it even bigger.
Recognizing Nancy for doing her best to protect me is a reminder that in many ways my mind is doing its job. He’s just taking care of me.
If you want to put this technique to the test, the steps are simple.
Make up the identity of your anxiety alter ego.
Get creative and have fun with the names. Personally, I’m a big fan of alliteration. Don’t skip this step, as naming your anxious thoughts can help you disidentify from them.
Create an exaggerated caricature.
Give them a set of traits and characteristics. Maybe it’s an apocalypse that always thinks the worst will happen. Maybe it’s an annoying neighbor who shows up at inopportune times. The more exaggerated, the better.
Create thought cubes
Preemptively decide which thoughts belong to your anxiety doppelgänger and which belong to you. The less reality-based or useless the thought, the more you can pass it on to your stressed partner.
For example, if you often feel anxious about work, a thought like “I’m going to be fired” may belong to your anxious alter ego. A thought like “I can try to do a better job next time” may belong to you.
It’s best to establish these categories before you’re in the heat of an anxious moment, not during it. Once you have your general cubes defined, you will have them ready when the anxiety arises.
Pro-type: This technique also works for other hard-to-manage emotions, such as anger, impatience, boredom, or fear.
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 part of your nervous system’s programming, it doesn’t define who you are.
Experiencing anxiety doesn’t mean you can’t be adventurous, silly, cheerful, or bold.
Anxiety is a feeling, and you are much more than that.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. He has taught in private studios, gyms, and in individual settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find it in Instagram.
Last medical check-up on April 13, 2021