Are you feeling a bit anxious? Maybe a lot anxious?
Yeah, me too.
We’re hardly alone: there are more anxious people walking the earth right now than ever before. The percentage of people with diagnosed anxiety disorder is higher than it’s ever been, and climbing fast. The number of undiagnosed cases is probably much higher.
The New York Times has called anxiety the “inner pandemic.” So what’s causing it, and how can we fix it?
Why Are We Getting More Anxious?
Life has always been scary. But today’s soaring level of anxiety—including your anxiety—isn’t just about what’s happening in the world. It’s also about what’s happening in our brains.
These days we’re bombarded with information about terrible things happening all over the world, without getting the time or space for our bodies and minds to relax and reset. This leads to what I call an “anxiety spiral” in our heads.
The Anxiety Spiral
When you see something frightening, your brain snaps its focus onto it. That’s how it evolved, to keep you safe. It wants to escape the danger, then relax. But it runs into a problem. The cognitive, verbal part of your brain grabs the frightening experience and starts telling stories about it.
For example, say you’re driving when someone swerves into your lane. Scary moment! But then your cognitive mind goes to work. “That driver must be drunk,” it may say. “He may hit me any moment. In fact, all these drivers could be drunk. I’m in mortal danger!”
This scary story pumps back into your brain’s fear center, triggering even more fear…which then triggers more scary stories…which feed back to trigger even more fear. What started as a pulse of attention becomes a spiral of anxiety.
What To Do About It
The anxiety spiral is like a little software glitch—a mechanism in the brain that leads to constantly increasing fear. It’s healthy to keep your fear impulse at its basic level, checking to see if your situation is dangerous. You can’t change that. The place to stop the anxiety spiral is in the story-telling part of your brain.
The best way I’ve found to do this is to imagine the scared part of yourself as a small child or frightened animal. Even if you don’t feel particularly calm, speaking soothingly to this part of yourself helps stop the anxiety spiral.
The next time you’re feeling anxious, take some time to write, speak, or just think soothing thoughts, actively calming your scared brain. It may sound too simple, but it works. Try it right now. Be sure to address the scared part as a different person, saying “You’ll be okay” rather than “I’ll be okay.”
Say things like this to your anxious self:
“You’ll be okay.”
“I’ve got you.”
“You’re not in trouble.”
“Everything is all right.”
I call this practice Kind Internal Self-Talk, “KIST,” for short. I use it whenever the triggers in my head get tripped and I find myself spiraling into anxiety. I’m still amazed at how well it works.
In upcoming posts I’ll tell you more ways of calming your anxiety, even turning it into the energy that solves problems and creates incredible things in the world. But for now, just offer your anxious self a little kindness. A step off the anxiety spiral can be the first step to the calm, happy life you’re meant to live.
Explore Martha’s course, The Art of Calm: Tools for Finding Peace in an Anxious World.
Discover additional articles, videos, podcast episodes, and mini-books in Martha’s series on anxiety on The Art of Calm Hub.
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