Martha smiling in a smock holding a pencil

If you’re like most people, you’re feeling a bit anxious. Anxiety is skyrocketing all over the world, and I’ve spent the last couple of years focusing intensely on it. 

Truth be told, I’ve spent most of my life focusing intensely on anxiety, because I’ve always been an anxious person. On most days, I’d wake up panting and shedding like a scared terrier. I still do, sometimes. But now I know how to stop.

I’ve written a whole book about this (Beyond Anxiety, due out in January 2025) but in the process I learned a lot of tricks and hacks. My favorite isn’t prana yoga or meditation—they’re wonderful methods, but when I’m anxious they just sound difficult. 

I like to use a quicker fix: curiosity.

Psychiatrist and legendary anxiety-buster Judson Brewer once took a group of anxious clients on a hike. He brought another doctor as a co-conspirator. At a certain moment during the hike when everyone had stopped for a rest, he and the other doctor, in unison, said, “Hmmm.”

Immediately, all the patients became intensely curious—and a lot less anxious. Our brains have trouble sustaining curiosity and staying anxious at the same time. Even after Brewer and his friend told their patients they weren’t actually looking at anything, the whole group stayed in an exploratory, investigative mindset. And this made them much less anxious.

Try this yourself. Wherever you are right now, say the word (or make the sound—it’s really not a word) “Hmmm.” Repeat this several times as you look around the room. Can you feel how your brain perks up and your eyes start looking for interesting sights? Can you feel how curiosity starts to crowd out anxiety? 

The close connection between anxiety and curiosity is the reason people rubberneck at accidents, half afraid but also curious. It’s why we watch murder mysteries, which may be scary but also present a mystery to be solved. Start investigating, and fear eases while curiosity increases.

One of my favorite ways of using curiosity is to go “Hmmm” when I’m dealing with something unpleasant. When a pipe bursts or I get stuck in traffic when I have to be on time, my first thought may be “Why is this happening to me?” But if I switch the emphasis: “Hmmm. Why IS this happening to me?” I start to see the situation through the lens of curiosity.

The two memoirs I’ve published are all about how I tried to answer the question “Why IS this happening to me?” when my life seemed to have gone to rack and ruin. I’ve worked with hundreds of clients who climbed out of panicky despair and into a sense of purpose by asking the same question. In all these cases, curiosity was the way out of fear and into a sense of purpose—and ultimately to peace and gratitude.

When we get curious about our problems, we stop feeling like victims and start feeling like detectives. We begin to see deeper meaning in our own suffering. We may even become grateful for the very situations that once worried us.

For example, author Geneen Roth and her husband lost all their money because of a crooked financial advisor. Naturally, she was devastated and afraid. But by asking “Why IS this happening to me?”, she gradually came to see her situation as a profound teacher, which was helping her loosen her hold on material possessions and find a sense that she was being cared for by a force much greater than money. Viktor Frankl, imprisoned in the horror of Auschwitz, found that looking for meaning in his experience helped him survive and then heal. They became investigators of their own tragedies and ended up with deep wisdom.

Our brains are meaning-making machines. They can make sense of chaos, and turn problems into launching pads for happiness. We just need to stop using our imaginations to generate anxiety and begin using them to generate curiosity. Instead of: “Oh, no, what bad thing is happening? What terrors are about to show up?”, we can think, “Hmm, what odd thing is happening? What can I learn from this?”. It may feel a bit forced at first, but that’s just the sense of a bad habit breaking.

This month, whenever something bothers you, focus on it and think, “Hmmm.” Treasure your sparks of curiosity. Let them catch fire. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “If you can pause and identify even one tiny speck of interest in something, then curiosity will ask you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look at the thing a wee bit closer. Do it.

Each time you follow this advice, you’ll find your anxiety backing off. You’ll also learn more, understand more, and find a deeper meaning in everyday life. As the poet James Stephens wrote, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” And it’s the way to a radically happier, less anxious, more delicious life.