5 Steps to Get Better at Being Anxious

I really don’t get people whose temperament isn’t naturally anxious — who now call me and say things like “Wow, Joanna. I now know what you’ve been talking about all these years when you describe waking up anxious” or “not being able to stop the worry.”

I feel like I was born anxious. I’ve always attributed it to being raised by Jewish parents from NYC.

It’s taken me a lot of trial and error, therapy, thought logs, astrology, meditation, essential oils, crystals — you name it — to find a way to respond when anxious feelings happen.

It wasn’t until I learned about an evidence-based model called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, that things clicked. A mindfulness-based extension of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, ACT helps you move through life’s inevitable difficulties. I’ve adapted ACT in both therapy and coaching situations.

For those who are feeling anxious because of current events or because life has thrown you a pretty big curveball, these 5 steps will be welcome advice. For those of us who’ve been working through our anxiety forever, they’ll serve as good reminders.

5 Steps to Get Better at Being Anxious:

1. Change the goal.

Instead of putting energy into making the thoughts or feelings go away (which doesn’t work), put your attention on letting them be.

2. You don’t need to accept the CONTENT of your thoughts, BUT you do need to accept their PRESENCE.

You may have the thought that you could get infected with COVID-19 and die. Instead of engaging with the content of the thought (Is it going to happen? What would I do? Who will take care of my dog?), work on accepting the presence of the thought. “I’m aware that I’m having a distressing thought about getting infected with COVID-19 and dying.” That’s it.

3. Trust that the better you get at being worried and anxious, the less worried and anxious you’ll be.

You’re probably thinking WTF? Stay with me … this is all about your stance toward these feelings. Most people fear being anxious and get anxious when they start getting anxious, which makes them more anxious. If you can adopt a “bring it on” stance toward the feelings, you’ll actually be less anxious. Don’t believe me? Try it.

4. Move toward what matters.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think most people think their way out of being anxious. When we’re anxious, we spend more time in our heads and that takes us away from what’s important. Take an action — do something that will help prevent you from the endless thoughts. And if it’s a particularly sticky thought or feeling, cold showers and push-ups (or any other vigorous activity) are great. Pull-ups are my go-to.

5. Remember that progress isn’t linear.

It’s all about practice, repetition, and consistency. It’s hard to deprogram ourselves from wanting the anxiety to go away, especially when popular magazines and social media will try to sell you ways to do it. Remember, anxiety serves an important function (to keep us alive) so we need it, in the right dose.I remind my clients that progress isn’t measured by the presence or absence of their anxious thoughts. It’s measured by if they can respond differently when those thoughts and feelings arise (which they will). Initially, they will feel worse, but, if they’re responding differently and going toward what’s important, that’s what matters. That’s movement. Eventually it will get easier. It’s all about learning HOW to respond.

Bonus step: get help! You don’t have to do this alone.