If you’re wondering how to control your emotions, then this post is for you.
So you want to stop overthinking, or you want to stop worrying so much, you really want to stop being so anxious all the time. But when someone tells you “Stop worrying” it’s super annoying, because if you could just turn it off, you would! It’s not that easy.
Now in the last 4 videos we’ve talked about 4 cognitive skills that can help with anxiety- 1. Challenging your thoughts, 2- Cognitive Defusion, 3- Dropping the struggle with anxiety about anxiety, and 4- Scheduled worry
And hopefully you’re using these skills, like the scheduled worry practice. And if you’re like me, this practice has decreased your worrying drastically, but how do we manage overthinking and worrying throughout the day?
How do we get good at defusing from our thoughts? Or shifting our attention from anxiety about anxiety to the stuff we care about in the present moment?
The single most effective way to decrease anxiety is to stop worrying and to stop bringing to mind the perception of danger all the time. It’s the perception of danger that triggers that anxiety response over and over again throughout the day.
And the single most effective way to learn to control your attention is through mindfulness practice, but most people don’t understand how mindfulness really works. They misunderstand how to use it. So in this video, you’re going to learn a super practical, straightforward way to use mindfulness, to retrain your brain, to be less anxious, and to get back to living the life you value.
And just so you know, mindfulness is super hard for me, personally. It is not my favorite skill. It’s just so effective that you’ve got to try it. So in this video, you’ll learn how to do it, even if it’s really hard for you, too. Okay, so we’re gonna learn how to actually use mindfulness, but I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m a novice at mindfulness.
I’ve used it on and off for a decade, but I really wanted to bring in an expert for this video. So, I’ve invited Nick Wignall here to really teach us how to do mindfulness the right way. Nick Wignall is an expert in anxiety. He’s treated hundreds of people with general anxiety disorder, and he’s an excellent teacher and also my friend.
Watch the video below to learn more.
Emma: Hey, Nick, thank you for joining us today.
Nick: You bet. Thanks for having me.
Emma: Yeah. I’m so grateful that you’re here to teach us and bring all your wisdom. Talk to us about why is it so hard to stop worrying?
Nick: Oh, man. Yeah, worry is really tough because there’s a lot of reasons. There’s all sorts of causes of worry and situations that make worry difficult. But I think one of the biggest things that is very counterintuitive, but that is key for overcoming chronic worry is there’s a concept called thought suppression in the kind of research on psychology.
There’s this famous psychologist, Daniel Wegner was his name. And he, this famous experiment that’s called the White Bear Experiment. And what he did was he had two groups of people and he showed them both a picture of a white bear. One group, he said, “Whatever you do for the next 20 minutes or whatever, do not think about a white bear.”
And the other group, he didn’t say anything. And then he basically, he measured how often did people in both groups think about the white bear? Guess what? The people who tried really hard not to think about the white bear, their minds were constantly bombarding them with images and thoughts and white bears all over the place.
Yeah. So, there’s this very counterintuitive thing with a lot of thoughts where the more you resist them, the more your brain throws them at you. So, I think one of the reasons why we have such a hard time not worrying so much is because we understandably, we resist worry so much. We try so hard to stop worry or to escape from it or to get rid of it and counterintuitively what that tells our brain is, “Ooh, yikes, this thing is really bad. So we’re going to be more attentive to it. And we’re going to keep reminding you of it because it thinks worry is dangerous.” So I think fundamentally, like on a mechanics level, that’s a big part of why chronic worry, especially is so tricky to deal with.
Emma: Like our brain, it’s so paradoxical. Like, we wish, or we’ve been told even, “Oh, you can control your thoughts. You can control your brain.” We can influence our brain to a massive degree, but the minute we try and tell it like, “Okay, you can’t think about this or this is, it’s threatening to think about worrying, like it’ll harm you if you think about worrying. All of a sudden your brain’s we’re going to pay a ton of attention to that.”
Nick: Absolutely. And it’s good to remember, to a large extent, you cannot actually control your thoughts. You can control your attention, what you choose to focus on or not. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, right? Sometimes it’s hard and we’ll get into that more.
Nick: I think that distinction is really important that.
Emma: Yeah. I think that’s so important because even you think about someone who’s depressed and they’re like having a bad day and they start thinking all these negative thoughts and they’re like, oh my gosh, I shouldn’t be thinking this. I’m so bad for thinking this. What’s the matter with me? Why am I thinking this? And all of a sudden they’re like trapped in this, like, rumination cycle, basically that makes things worse. So, yeah.
Nick: It’s the same with worry, right? We get trapped in these cycles to, I like to tell people that it was really helpful to me is your thoughts are going to talk to you all the time you don’t have to talk back. You don’t have to get into a conversation with your thoughts. You can, if you want, if it’s helpful, right. But if a worry pops into your head, it’s so easy to just automatically assume, okay, I should keep talking to this and elaborating on this. And while that can often be tough not to do, it absolutely is possible to set boundaries on that, that chatting with our unhelpful thoughts and decide, no, it’s there.
It’s talking to me, but I’m choosing not to talk back.
Emma: Yeah. Awesome. So, how can we train our brain to be able to choose what we put attention on?
Nick: The first thing I love that you bring up that term, you use that word train. How do we train our brain? Cause the way to think about this really is it’s about training. It’s about exercise. Just like you would train a dog not to pee in your house, right? You potty train a dog or just like you would train kids to learn how to play piano, right? Learning how to control your attention and not get caught up in worry, it’s a training exercise. So, the basics is when you have that distracting thought, whatever it is, in our case, we’re talking about a worry. It’s about acknowledging, “Hey, there’s a worry.” Right? A thought is my brain is talking at me, but having the presence of mind to say that’s happening, but I don’t actually want to do that. I don’t want to continue elaborating on that worry or having a conversation with that worry. And I’m going to practice moving my attention.
Remember, attention is like a spotlight. Think about like old movies and prisons, right? Where there’s the big spotlight on the prisoner, like up on the wall. That’s your attention and you can shift it. Now it’s hard. Your brain thinks something’s wrong. So, it’s going to tend to pull you back to the worry.
But with practice, you can get better like a muscle. You can get stronger at pulling it away from a worry and putting it onto something more productive or helpful. And so the way to think about though, is that’s, it’s a muscle and like all muscles, the way you get stronger is you exercise them regularly.
Emma: So how do you do, what is that exercise?
Nick: There’s a lot of ways to do it. A really, arguably the most effective way to do it is what I call mindfulness training. And mindfulness, big term, right? Super big term.
Emma: Now we just touched on mindfulness for a second. We’re going to come back to it. You’re going to teach us how to do it. But what do you think people get wrong about mindfulness? Because this is like probably the buzziest word in psychology of the last decade.
Nick: Oh my gosh
Emma: Other than narcissism.
Nick: Okay. So, here’s the thing. What you get wrong about mindfulness. The big one is what they ultimately want is to worry less and feel less anxious or less stressed, but they think about mindfulness as a coping strategy, this thing you do. Okay. I’m super stressed and anxious. I’m going to open up my tool belt of coping strategies and I’m gonna do mindfulness real quick. And then hopefully that’ll make me feel less anxious.
Emma: Yeah. They use it like a bandaid or a way to avoid a feeling and replace it with a different feeling.
Nick: Yeah. A hundred percent. And while it’s so understandable, because when you’re feeling really anxious, it’s awful, right? You really, you just don’t want to feel anxious anymore. The problem is when you try to, when you avoid including your anxiety or worry or try to get rid of it. You might get some temporary relief. This is why people keep using coping skills because they’re addicting. Frankly, they give you temporary relief. But longterm, you’re training your brain to think that worry and anxiety are bad, which means they’re going to show up more like those white bears, right? They’re going to keep showing up even more intensely and frequently. So, I believe when it comes to how can mindfulness be useful for anxiety. What people get wrong is they think about it as a coping skill. What they should be doing is thinking about it as an exercise. Something you do when you’re not anxious or worried so that when anxiety and worry pop up, you are stronger and better able to deal with them in a helpful way so that you don’t end up super anxious and worried in the first place.
Emma: Yeah. So, what we’re doing is training our brain to be better at shifting its attention, and they’ve shown that can literally change the structure of people’s brains. I think it’s a little bit annoying. But sometimes people talk about, like, your muscles in your brain, right? Like they imagine your brain, like doing weightlifting because what’s happening is when you practice or when you exercise this, it’s literally shifting what your brain is focusing its energy and attention on. And sometimes in a physical way, like they can see this in brain scans, people who are really good at mindfulness.
So how do we practice it? What is the basic mindfulness practice, the exercise that you would recommend people try when they want to train their brain to be better at choosing where they put their attention.
Nick: Totally. So, I’ll give you my little formula. There’s a very simple approach to mindfulness for attention training, for building this muscle that allows you to take control of your intention instead of letting it be controlled by your worry and anxiety. And so here’s what it is. It’s so simple. You sit down, you relax, you close your eyes. If you’re comfortable with it, you don’t have to. And you focus on the sensation of breathing. You’re not deep breathing. You’re not doing diaphragmatic breathing. You’re not doing anything special. You’re literally just sitting there.
And you’re focusing on how does it feel to breathe? Not you’re not thinking about breathing. Am I doing it right? Am I doing deeper? You’re just like, ooh that’s interesting. The air feels cool when it’s coming in through my nose and it feels a little warm when it’s coming out of my mouth.
It’s a very descriptive exercise. You’re just noticing or describing What breathing feels like. That’s it. Now, inevitably, what’s gonna happen is you’re gonna get distracted and that’s okay. You’re gonna end up thinking about the bananas you forgot to get at the grocery store or some terrible thing in politics is happening or whatever it is, right?
Or really commonly, am I doing this right? You’re gonna start thinking about the practice, right? Oh my God, I’m so distracted. I’m not. So, the first thing is, that’s totally normal. When you get distracted, you go, “Oh, I’m distracted. That’s fine. I’m gonna refocus my attention back on my breath on what it feels like to breathe.” And you’re gonna do that and you’re gonna notice how you’re breathing and then inevitably, literally, two seconds later, you’re gonna get distracted by something else and you’ll go, “Oh, I’m distracted again!” But you’re gonna try you’re gonna be as non judgmental with yourself as possible and just say, “Huh! A lright I got distracted again. That’s okay.” And actually it’s a good thing because it allows me to practice the essential skill that I need to get better at controlling my attention, which is number one, noticing, being aware of when you’re getting distracted. So in terms of anxiety, it’s oh, like anxiety has hijacked my worry I’m being controlled by my worries. I don’t want to do that. I want to be focusing on my kids that I’m playing with right now or the conversation I’m having with my spouse or whatever it is.
Emma: Yeah. Yeah.
Nick: So, notice mindfulness when you get distracted it teaches you to more quickly notice when you’re distracted and then it gives you the opportunity. It’s an opportunity. It’s not bad that you’re distracted. The distraction gives you the opportunity to practice shifting your focus back onto something you care about instead of letting it be controlled by something else. This is like that mind blowing thing. You have to get distracted. This would not be a helpful exercise if you didn’t get distracted.
People get so down on themselves for oh, I got so distracted. It was a bad session. No nonsense. It’s a really good session. That’s like saying like, the weights were really heavy when I was working out. It was a bad session. They’re supposed to be heavy building.
Emma: You can be proud of being a little sore. Like you’re like, oh, I’m so sore. ’cause I just really lost attention a lot. This exercise, .
Nick: So, that’s it. That’s the whole thing.
Nick: You pay attention to your breath. Yeah, you get distracted. You notice that you’re distracted. You refocus back on your breath and you do everything non judgmentally. You’re not being critical with yourself. You’re not thinking about why this is happening or what you should be doing differently or it’s just very simple. It’s like exercise. And you do it and we can talk a little bit more about logistics for how long do you do it and when you do it and all kind of stuff.
But I just want to really get across the idea that yeah, It does not have to be and really should not be any more complicated than that. That’s it.
Emma: I love it. I love it. And mindfulness training has been shown to be very effective at treating anxiety and depression.
Nick: I have found this really simple approach to mindfulness the most effective for that specific goal.
Emma: Yeah. Okay. I’m going to grab my poster just to illustrate what we’re doing. And then we’re going to come back and you’re going to explain to people like, how to implement this in their daily life. So one sec.
Emma: Look, Nick, I got a poster made.
Nick: Whoa, look at props. You got props.
Emma: I’m so proud of myself. I used staples. When people are in like their default nervous system mode, they’re in a state of safety. They experience a stimulus, which they interpret as dangerous. Oh, someone jumps out at you from a trail, when you’re on a trail, and your brain’s oh my gosh, it could be a bear. And that’s what triggers the anxiety response. But the reason people have anxiety disorders, is right here all day long, they’re having these worries pop into their brain that are like, oh my gosh, what if I fail that test? Oh my gosh, what if I have that email I have to respond to? I don’t do good at work or whatever it is. I need to do this and I need to do that. And those worries all day long are triggering this fight, flight, freedom response. So, when people are engaging in mindfulness, they’re bringing their attention to noticing those worries and maybe redirecting their attention or they’re noticing those worries and redirecting their attention to other things around them or thoughts like, oh, everything’s going to be okay. And that interrupts this anxiety cycle because all of a sudden, instead of believing something’s dangerous, you’re like, actually, I’m safe right now here in the present moment, I’m safe enough. And if you go from stimulus back into the parasympathetic response. That’s how I think of this at least.
Nick: Yeah, totally. So, I would say two things on that. This ability to let go of and shift your attention off of something unhelpful, like worry and onto something productive or helpful the conversation you’re in or the work you have to do, whatever it is, it’s helpful on two levels. A in the moment, you’re going to worry less and therefore you’re going to generate less anxiety.
Nick: So it’s actually really, it’s hard, but it’s helpful just literally in the moment you will be less anxious. It’s also helpful long term though, because what it does is it teaches your brain when you stop getting obsessed with those worries, every time a worry comes, each time you have a conversation with your worry, you’re giving it attention and you’re reinforcing your brain’s tendency to throw those worries at you.
Emma: Yes. Yes. .
Nick: You put boundaries on them and you say, “Okay, I hear you talking to me, but actually. I’m not going to reinforce that with attention. I’m going to go on my way and do something else.” Over time, you teach your brain to throw fewer worries at you, which helps get you out of that cycle long term. And that’s the real magic of learning to control your attention and getting stronger at that ability, which mindfulness is one way to do.
Emma: And I think I love that. Okay. So if someone wants to practice mindfulness, how do they do it?
Nick: Okay. So, I have another hot take on this. Most people are way too slow and gradual when they work into mindfulness. It’s tempting to think with anything difficult and a lot of people have a really hard time with mindfulness in part because they think it, I think I shouldn’t get distracted or it should be easy. It should be relaxing. Nonsense. It’s a workout. It should be hard. Getting distracted helps you build that muscle. We covered that already. The other mistake though I see is that people, you’re going to get more benefit. Just so imagine this, you decide, okay, I’m gonna start lifting weights because I want to get stronger. But you only lift weights for five minutes a day. Now that’s nice. And I’m sure there’s some better than nothing. Absolutely. But here’s the thing to stay motivated, to really be able to lift weights significantly, progress is the most powerful motivator. You’ve got to feel like you’re making progress. You’ve got to feel like you’re getting stronger. You’ve got to look at your biceps and go actually, hey, they’re a little bigger, right? Like I’m looking a little better.
Emma: I’m lifting stronger.
Nick: That long term. That progress is what’s going to motivate you to keep going and make this a really consistent and effective practice. So, what happens is if you go too slow and too small for too long, you lose motivation and you just give up because you’re not getting anything out of it. So, mindfulness is the same way.
Nick: It doesn’t mean you can’t start small. You should start small, right? So this exercise I described, do it, set a timer on your phone for five minutes, two minutes, two for two minutes, right? Do that for a day or two, but pretty quickly jump up to 10 minutes for another day or two. Okay. Then relatively quickly go to 20 and 30 minutes because you will get so much more out of this if you’re in the 20 to 30 minute zone, then if you’re in the five minutes zone and I know that sounds hard, like it looks like you’re having a panic attack over there.
Emma: That sounds really hard for me and I’m going to try it and I’m going to film the results. So yes, like the thought of sitting still for 20 minutes for me is like, Oh my gosh, that sounds so hard.
Nick: Yeah. And of course everyone’s different. Take this with it. But what I want to get across is this general principle that if you want to stick with this long term and see the benefit of it, you have to see results from it and you’re just not going to see results if you’re only doing five minutes a day, like it might be nice and you might get some benefits from it, but if you want to put a serious dent in your anxiety by really learning how to control your attention, like five minutes a day is not going to cut it. I’m just going to be straight up.
Emma: All right.
Nick: It’s not going to do it.
Emma: Okay. Yeah.
Nick: It’s gotta be more than that. So, is it 30 minutes? I don’t know. Maybe it’s 15 or 20 minutes. But the point is it’s got to be a significant thing if you want those muscles to get stronger But the good thing is after the initial hump It’s not like you have to grit and bear it the whole time. You will enjoy it more. You will feel yourself getting stronger.
Nick: It will become a more enjoyable thing. It’s like the you thought there’s a runner. We have this family friend who was a triathlete And I never used to like to run and she used to see, she always said how far do you run? I said, I don’t know, like a mile. She was like, nobody likes running the first mile. Like it’s awful. Your body’s I don’t want to do this. You always feel bad. You never feel good until you start getting to higher mileage, like three, four or five miles and your body accepts, “Hey, this is something new.” And you kick into a different gear. Mindfulness training is exactly the same way. Everybody feels crappy the first five minutes, which is why you need to push through and quickly get to a place where you’re doing 20, 30-minute sessions.
Emma: Okay. So I love this and I know a lot of people really benefit from this and I’m going to try it. And if I come back, cause I’m going to, I’m going to record my progress on this. If I come back and I’m like, oh my gosh, I enjoyed a 20-minute mindfulness session. I’m going to buy you lunch to anywhere you want to go. Fanciest place you want to go. Arizona.
Nick: Remember though, it’s all about expectations, right? This is not a coping strategy to feel relaxed.
Emma: Yeah. The goal isn’t to feel …. yeah!
Nick: If you went out of a workout and felt relaxed, you’d actually be disappointed. You’d think I probably didn’t get a very good workout in, right? You want to feel like I’m sweaty, I’m nasty, I’m stinky. I’m like, I’m sore.
Emma: Yeah. Yes. That good feeling.
Nick: A good workout.
Emma: And I can totally get that when it comes to like physical exercise. Like I really enjoy exercise and I love a good, hard exercise. So, we’ll go see if I can do this. I’m gonna, I’m gonna do it, Nick. I’m gonna give it, I’m gonna give it my best. I believe you. So do that. So, a couple minutes, start with two or five minutes, do that for a couple of days, up to 10 minutes, a couple of days, and then get to 20 or 30 within a week.
Nick: Yep, exactly.
Emma: And do you have to sit cross legged and hold your fingers like this and say, Ohm? Does it matter?
Nick: You can, if you want. No, it doesn’t matter. If you’re doing this late at night, you won’t be laying on your bed because you’re just gonna fall asleep. But whatever, these are the kinds of details that don’t ultimately matter for this type of mindfulness. Just find someplace comfortable and get to it.
Emma: Great. Okay, and the goal of this is to exercise not to just feel good
Nick: Exactly. It’s an exercise not a coping strategy.
Emma: Great. Okay. Awesome Do you come across any other like common worries or difficulties people have when they start mindfulness?
Nick: Gosh, the big one is just it’s wild to me how judgmental people are of themselves with mindfulness. I don’t know where this comes from But the thing to really keep in mind is that you just really want to be gentle with yourself. Think about how you are with like a best friend or, with your kids or there’s no reason you shouldn’t treat yourself trying something new and difficult with the same level of gentleness that you would approach someone else, a good friend or someone who was trying something. You’d be like, “Dude, that’s awesome. That’s super hard. I know it sucks. Like parts of it suck, but like good for you. That’s so great.” Like, why can’t you extend the same attitude to yourself? You can, you’re probably not in the habit of doing it, but you absolutely can. And I think that’s probably another, ultimately, maybe even more important benefit that you can get out of a mindfulness training is that it teaches you to be kinder and to have a better relationship with yourself.
Which is just that’s everything. That’s like the core of everything. So be gentle. I think gentleness is like the key word when it comes to mindfulness training.
Emma: Okay. So we’re going to get out there and go to start with five minutes a day. Let yourself notice your breathing, not try to change it, not try to think about breathing, practice noticing, and you’re going to lose track of what you’re gonna, your mind is going to wander. That’s normal, natural, and to be expected. Gently bring it back with love and compassion. Bring your attention back to your breath and then do that over and over again until your timer goes off. That’s the main idea, right?
Nick: That’s it.
Nick: And remember, look, this is not the only way to lower your anxiety. I’ve just found that this is a particularly effective way, especially if you struggle with getting lost in conversation with your worries. If you can do this is such an effective concentrated dose of working through chronic worry and anxiety. It’s just so effective. So, it’s at least worth giving it a really good shot, I think.
Emma: Yeah, I love it. I love it. I’m going to try it and I’m going to come back and tell y’all how it went.
Nick: I’m really looking forward to my big steak lunch that you’re going to buy me.
Emma: Yeah. Yeah. I’m excited. I’m excited. It’s going to be it’s going to be awesome. So thank you again so much, Nick. Really appreciate you taking the time to be here today.
Nick: Of course. Thanks for having me on. I always love chatting with you, Emma.
Emma: Yeah, and for all of you out there, you can find more of his teaching. You can sign up for his newsletter and see some of his articles at his website Nickwignall.com. Thank you. Really appreciate it. Have a good one.
Nick: Of course. See ya.
Emma: All right.
Click the link below to learn more about the course, Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days.