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How to Become a Less Anxious Person

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistMay 07, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

If you deal with anxiety on a regular basis, you’ve probably developed some skills for managing your anxious feelings in the moment. Maybe you practice breathing techniques to calm your nervous system, or you get your body moving to distract you from worries.

But is it possible to reduce anxiety on a deeper level? Can you become a less anxious person?

Multiple research studies suggest that you can. That’s not to say it’s easy, of course. Anxiety is a complex blend of mental, emotional, and physical symptoms, and it’s associated with longstanding habits that a person may have had for years, even decades.

For example, someone with high social anxiety might have a habit of thinking that other people see them as “weird”; this pattern of thinking may have been strengthened through thousands of interactions, making it tough to break.

Becoming a less anxious person requires a systematic plan to reprogram our habits. And because anxiety affects your mind, body, and spirit, becoming a less anxious person requires practicing new ways of thinking, acting, and being in the world.

If you’re ready to become less anxious, below are some approaches you can use to start retraining your brain. Pick one of these strategies to focus on this week, and practice new habits every day—starting today.

THINK (Cognitive Strategies)

Practice empowering thoughts. If you’re highly anxious, the anxious thoughts may begin even before you get out of bed in the morning—things like worried “what-ifs” and doubts about your ability to handle the day’s challenges.

Practice proactively thinking in ways that empower you, starting when you wake up—for example, “I have what I need today,” and, “I’ll use the same strength today that has gotten me this far.” Write down the thoughts you want to practice saying to yourself, and take them with you to refer to throughout the day.

Change your relationship with anxiety. The more you try to avoid anxiety, the more it can dominate your life. So paradoxically, one reliable way to be a less anxious person is to start seeing anxiety as unavoidable.

When you find that you’re trying to make yourself not feel anxious, shift your focus instead to what you need to do in the situation. For example, if you’re nervous about a speech, focus your attention on what you want to say, regardless of what the anxiety is up to.

You can also change your relationship with worry. If you’re prone to chronic worry, you probably believe at least implicitly that you should worry or that you have to worry. In reality, worry isn’t productive—it doesn’t spare us future heartache, it doesn’t motivate us, and it doesn’t make us more effective problem solvers (some of the common beliefs about worry). When you catch yourself worrying, give yourself permission to shift to what you actually can control in the situation.

ACT (Behavioral Strategies)

Do things that scare you. Anxiety and avoidance are closely related—the more we avoid certain tasks and situations, the more anxious we feel, and vice versa. You can break this cycle by getting in the habit of confronting what makes you anxious, without avoiding or delaying (see this article for tips). Start with easy wins—small tasks you’ve been putting off, or mildly challenging situations—and build toward more difficult ones.

Take care of your physical needs. Our physical state can directly affect our anxiety, and being anxious often affects our physical health through sleep disruption, poor diet, and inconsistent exercise. Look for small ways to gradually take better care of yourself—adding one weekly workout, for example, or focusing on having a more nutritious diet, one meal at a time. Also tend to your sleep habits (this article provides 11 tips). Feeling well physically can improve your mental and emotional state, as well. 

BE (Mindfulness Strategies)

Schedule time for stillness. Anxiety compels us to be in constant motion, whether physically or by spinning our mental wheels. Make a point to find moments of stillness each day. It could be a formal meditation practice, like focusing on the breath for a few minutes, or simply enjoying a cup of tea while you watch the birds outside.

As you pause from thinking and doing, your nervous system has a chance to settle into a more relaxed place. And by bringing your attention into the moment, whatever you’re doing, you step out of the anxious preoccupation with the future. You can find true rest in these moments of stillness.

Embrace uncertainty. Anxiety comes from wanting things to turn out a certain way when the outcome is unknown. But for better and worse, life is unpredictable. We never really know how things are going to go, which can be terrifying but is also what makes life life. When we can loosen our grip on needing things to go “our way,” we can let go of our anxiety about the future. Instead we can open to life as a series of surprising adventures.

Keep in mind that each of these practices can reinforce the others. Embracing uncertainty, for example, makes you more willing to do things that scare you. As you work on one area, you’re strengthening the others.

Also remember that it’s unrealistic to expect to become a non-anxious person. Some degree of anxiety is unavoidable, and there may still be times when you find your anxiety to be overwhelming. But with focused and consistent practice, you can lower your typical level of anxiety.

One last suggestion: Smile more. It sounds simple—and it is—but smiling can have a surprising effect on your anxiety. Chronic anxiety often leads to chronic seriousness, which can promote tension, stress, and more anxiety. So when your anxiety is creeping up, see what happens if you can muster even a faint smile.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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