Hi everyone. I’m Emma McAdam, a licensed therapist, and today you’re going to learn a step-by-step way to deal with anxiety.
Anxiety can be really uncomfortable. It can mess with your life. And our natural tendency is to avoid stuff that makes us anxious, but that can make your life worse. So things like procrastinating assignments, being afraid to leave the house, avoiding social activities, or keeping yourself distracted all the time so that you don’t have to notice your anxious thoughts. You get the idea. Anxiety messes your life up.
But here’s the thing: you don’t just have to cope with anxiety; you can learn to process through anxiety to resolve it and change your relationship to it. So let me show you how.
In this post we’re going to use three examples to show you a step-by-step way to process anxiety.
We’re going to talk about Bob, who has social anxiety. He feels uncomfortable around people, and he constantly worries about what he says and what other people are thinking about him.
We’re going to talk about Jane, who experiences general anxiety. She just feels jittery and anxious much of the day for no apparent reason.
And we’re going to talk about Fred, who has event anxiety. So Fred’s really anxious about an upcoming presentation that he has to give at school, and it’s a big part of his grade and he really needs to get a good score.
So throughout this post we’re going to use these three examples as a way to actually put into practice the emotion processing model. These are the in-depth skills that help you resolve anxiety instead of just coping with it.
So the very first step of dealing with anxiety is to observe it. There’s a couple ways we can observe our emotions, a couple of skills that you can practice to get better at this.
So you can start by asking yourself, “What am I feeling right now? What are my thoughts saying right now? What sensations am I feeling in my body?”
A lot of times with my clients, I’ll ask them, “Where are you feeling this anxiety? What does it feel like?” and they’ll say things like, “Cold hands” or “A tight stomach” or “Tense shoulders.”
And I’m going to encourage you to just notice it. Give a little bit of attention to what’s going on as you feel anxiety because your natural tendency is to immediately avoid or suppress these feelings, and Freud said, “Feelings buried alive never die.”
So trying not to feel anxious is probably going to make you more anxious. It’s like stuffing anxiety rocks into a backpack and carrying them around instead of looking at them and being like, “I don’t need this” and setting it to the side.
So for example, with general anxiety, Jane could observe her sensations like this: she could say something like, “Oh, hmm. I feel jittery and anxious and I don’t know why” or “I feel butterflies in my stomach. I feel tight in my chest.”
Now, at first when we pay attention to these sensations it may make them a little louder or a little more uncomfortable, but try it. You may be surprised that when we acknowledge our sensations, when we lean into them, we can actually create more space around them. And you’ll learn that you can feel them and that your body and you can handle it. And when you have this experience, those sensations and those feelings, they often settle down.
Another thing you can observe is your thoughts. So for example, Jane might think, “Oh, I wish this would just go away.” But when she notices that she’s the one having that thought, she can say, “I’m having the thought that I wish this would go away.”
This skill is called defusion. It’s separating yourself from your thoughts and your feelings. Now, you are not your thoughts or feelings; you’re the person having thoughts. You’re the person who’s experiencing emotions. So this skill is all about giving yourself a little bit of space between yourself and your thoughts and feelings.
It can also help to name your emotion, to be as specific as possible. So you could say, “I feel anxious,” but if you get more specific you might say, “I feel apprehensive or excited or nervous or dread, scared, frightful, unsettled, worried, concerned, peeved.” The more specific you get, the more power you have over your emotions.
So with social anxiety, Bob can say, “I feel nervous about going to the party” or “I feel scared that I won’t know what to say.”
It’s important to follow up the word “feel” with an emotion word, not a thought word. So for example, saying, “I feel like everyone will judge me” — that’s a thought, not a feeling. “I feel scared that everyone will judge me” — that’s an emotion word.
Of course, you can work with thoughts too. And we’re going to talk a lot about that in the explore section. It’s just, we can really benefit from getting really specific about which is which. Thoughts and emotions are two separate things.
So going back to thoughts: if Bob works to notice his automatic thoughts, he could say, “I worry that I won’t know anyone there” or “I just don’t want to go because I think everyone is looking at me.”
When Fred works on the observing step, he might say, “Oh, I’ve got to give that presentation next week, and I’ve got a pit in my stomach. I’m worried I won’t sleep well. I’m worried that I’m going to do a bad job.” So he’s just going to notice, “What are my worries?”
Now, an important part of observing emotions is letting go of judgment. So instead of saying, “This anxiety is awful. This anxiety is terrible. This is horrible,” we’re gonna describe the emotion instead.
So instead of labeling it as good or bad, we’re gonna say something like, “Oh, this is uncomfortable. This is a little painful,” and remind yourself that it’s okay to have feelings, that just because they’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean they’re bad; it just means that you care.
Now, if it feels like I’m moving a little fast here, that’s because I just described five skills in about a minute. Noticing, naming, exploring body sensations, cognitive defusion, and a non-judgmental attitude.
If you’ve never seen any of the videos from my emotion processing course, then this might seem a little bit overwhelming because this video is an overview of the process. But you can learn each of these skills in a separate in-depth video, and I’ve got a nice little bullet-pointed list that you can download so that you can reference it and walk yourself through the steps when you need to.
So that’s the first step in emotion processing. That’s observe.
The second step in processing emotions like anxiety is willingness. Willingness is the secret ingredient in emotion processing. If you want to work through emotions you need to choose to be willing to feel them, and this is a skill that you can develop.
So when we feel an uncomfortable emotion like anxiety, most of us just have this instinctive reaction to avoid it, to escape it, to just run amok, to keep busy or keep distracted, and this keeps us stuck in a constant level of anxiety because you never face it.
The lie anxiety tells us or the message it’s actually trying to tell us is that you’re in danger. But a lot of times that’s not true because you’re actually safe. And avoiding that anxiety keeps you stuck in that danger response, it keeps you stuck in anxiety.
So when you take the time to sit with anxiety. to lean into it, you’ll realize that the vast majority of time you are actually safe. And if there is some action you need to take to get safe or solve a problem, distraction or avoidance won’t help you there either.
So distraction and avoidance make you more anxious, and willingness is the opposite of that. So let’s practice some willingness right now.
I want you to slow yourself down just a little bit. Take a slow breath and get grounded in the present moment. That means feel your feet on the floor or the chair pressing into you. Pay attention to your bodily sensations, and let yourself sit with them for a moment without needing to make those feelings go away or distract yourself from them.
Now, if in the moment of anxiety you’re too upset to do this, then the other thing you can do to practice willingness is you can try exaggerating your emotions in your body.
We’re not trying to force ourselves to calm down; we’re trying to allow ourselves to experience what we’re feeling in the present moment. So if calming down wasn’t helping, let’s try leaning in.
So if you’re feeling jittery, let yourself shake. Exaggerate those shakes a little bit. If you’re feeling tense, tighten your muscles a little bit.
Another way to practice willingness is to listen to some music that expresses how you feel.
And another one of my favorite exercises is the brain-dump exercise. You just write down everything in your head, and you put on a piece of paper.
Some other things you can try, if you can do it in a non-forceful way, is to just practice some more of those nervous-system calming activities. And I’ve got videos on these on YouTube. Slow breathing, the yawn, shake it out, or progressive muscle relaxation. This is especially relevant with general anxiety.
So general anxiety is often a buildup of tiny little bits of anxiety over time that aren’t addressed or processed, and then you just feel anxious all the time but you don’t know why.
So with Jane, her inclination is to just keep avoiding her anxiety, and she does this by watching a lot of TikToks and spending a lot of time on Netflix. She tries not to think about it. If she’s feeling anxious she’ll eat something and she’ll just try any small, distracting things you can do to make it go away.
But with general anxiety it actually helps a lot more to pause for a moment, to turn everything off, to close your eyes, and go back to observing, “What am I feeling right now? Where is it in my body?”
Let me give you another example of willingness with Fred. So Fred’s worried about this upcoming presentation, but the more anxious he feels the more likely he is to procrastinate, to avoid his studies, or to just run around trying to anxiously study and prepare to an extreme degree. But if you’re running amok, it doesn’t let the thinking part of your brain turn on.
So he needs to find a way to slow himself down and choose to be willing to feel some anxiety around the situation. So he could say, “Hey, this stress response can help me prepare” instead of judging it as like, “This anxiety is so terrible. I can’t handle it.” Like, “This stress response is gonna help me be motivated to work on my presentation. It’s okay to feel a little bit of stress. It’s okay to feel a little bit of excitement about this presentation.”
Another thing Fred could try is just going on a walk without his phone. This lets his body move through some of those stress hormones and perhaps clear his mind a little bit.
And then he could sit down and do a brain dump. If he were to write this down on paper he could say, “I have a test tomorrow. I’ve studied this much. I still need to study this much. Here are the areas I feel confident in. Here are the areas I don’t,” etc. He just puts it all down on paper. So in this way he can face his anxiety, but from a more centered, intentional approach.
Now, with social anxiety, the treatment’s actually not very complicated, but it does require a lot of willingness. So willingness would look like Bob putting himself in a social situation and noticing that he’s feeling anxious but not leaving.
So basically, Bob has to change the rules in his head. The old rules said, “Don’t go if it makes you feel uncomfortable,” or “This is terrible if you feel anxious when you’re out.” And the new rules say, “It’s okay to have feelings and sensations. I can totally allow myself to go to this party and feel a little anxious” and still go.
So he says something to himself like, “Bring it on, anxiety. I can feel anxious, and I can still go to the party. I can handle feeling this way. It’s okay to feel anxious. Let’s do this.”
Now, by choosing to be willing to feel, he does two things. So number one, he changes his relationship with anxiety. He drops that struggle to never feel anxious, and that actually is going to decrease his anxiety over time.
And then the second thing he does is he actually shows up at the party, which gives him a chance to be around people. This gives his brain a chance to learn that it’s safe, and it’s actually going to decrease his anxiety over time.
That takes us to our next step, which is number three: explore. Exploring your anxiety is all about making it clear and concrete.
So anxiety is like a smoke alarm. It’s a loud, uncomfortable signal that indicates you might be in danger. But 99% of the time your smoke alarm goes off because you were cooking bacon or you just took a long, hot shower.
So when your smoke alarm goes off in your house, you don’t normally bring in the fire hoses or immediately start hosing down your house. You first just check to see if there is an actual fire.
If there is a fire, heck yes run from the house, call the fire department, turn on the hoses. But most of the time there isn’t a fire; you’re safe. You just made bacon. So you can press that mute button on your smoke alarm.
Now, anxiety is like a smoke alarm. Sometimes we think the loud signal of anxiety is the problem, the anxiety is the actual dangerous thing. So we try to shut off the signal or get rid of anxiety altogether or cope with it or sell the house. We throw our lives away to avoid anxiety.
But anxiety isn’t dangerous; it’s just a signal asking us to clarify if we’re safe or not. So with anxiety, we can really benefit from exploring it. And that looks like really checking to see if your anxiety is helpful. Is your anxiety helping you be safer? So we clarify.
We ask, “Are you in physical danger right now? Or are you actually safe in this moment?” And then we try to make it as concrete as possible instead of vague. So we write about it. We talk about it. We make it concrete. We diagram it.
Another part of exploring is to explore our thoughts because our thoughts often convince us that we’re in danger. So what thoughts might you be having that are making your anxiety worse? Are you catastrophizing? Are you thinking in black and white? Are you mental filtering? Are you only noticing the negative?
Exploring what’s behind your anxiety can help you know if you should take action to get safe or just take steps to soothe your overactive alarm system.
So let’s use social anxiety here. It’s easy to explore social anxiety because it’s often centered around a lot of fearful thoughts. So Bob thinks, “Everyone will judge me, and their judgments will be negative for sure, and if they did it would be catastrophic.” You can see how thinking in the most extreme way is going to make you really anxious.
So in the exploring part of anxiety we have to question these thoughts. Is it likely that everyone will judge you? Is it realistic? Would you survive if they did? The answer is most likely most people aren’t judging you. Even if they did, you would probably be okay. Like, it’s not gonna kill you if someone judges you.
So this is where we also explore our unwritten rules. So with social anxiety you might not realize that you have an internal rule that goes something like, “I have to be perfect or else I must withdraw from everyone.” Unwritten rules like this set you up for failure.
Let’s do another example. Let’s talk about Jane and her general anxiety. So in the explore step of emotion processing, Jane can explore what’s going on in her life that’s adding up to this sense of anxiety. What little things are you dealing with or not dealing with? And she could write them down.
Now, this is super important. Don’t just think about them; write them down.
So when when Jane sits and writes them down, it sounds kind of like this: “Bills, kids, work, friends, too much coffee and not enough sleep, too much sugar and not enough exercise, trying to do too many social events, trying to make everyone happy, never saying no,” etc. etc.
So sometimes general anxiety is about life management. It’s about taking on too many things and trying to do everything for everyone and then getting overwhelmed. So by writing these things down, you can see how you’re spending your time, and you can see the things that are left unfinished. And perhaps Jane would create a plan to start setting better boundaries.
So I think that if people with general anxiety just write it all down and then choose one thing to resolve or let go of or say no to, they’re going to decrease their anxiety a ton.
Now, you’ll notice that this part of processing is a lot more complicated or detailed than the other steps, and this is often the area we spend the most amount of time in therapy on. We clarify and explore options. We make them concrete, and we clear up faulty thinking. But these are things you can do on your own, and a lot of these skills are in my emotion processing course.
4. Clarify and Choose
Now that we have observed our emotions, we’ve felt them, we’ve explored them and what’s behind them, now we’re ready to clarify and choose what we’re going to do about them. So the exploring work laid the foundation for us to clarify what we want to do about anxiety.
Now, there’s two essential skills here in this step: the locus of control activity and the values activity. So with the locus of control activity, you separate what is and what isn’t in your realm of control. It’s really simple, but it’s a powerful way to clarify anxiety.
So with performance anxiety, Fred he can’t control whether he feels anxious, he can’t control other people’s reactions, he can’t directly control the outcome of his grade, but he can control how much he prepares.
He can research, he can practice, he can ask for feedback, he can choose to be willing to feel anxiety and call it excitement, and all of these indirectly influence the outcome, which is his grades.
Step four is also where we get ready for action by using a values activity to clarify what’s most important to you. So the values activity helps you know where to put your energy and focus.
So Bob could ask himself, “Why do I care about people and friends even though parties are sometimes uncomfortable?” Or he could ask, “Am I willing to engage in life even if it’s uncomfortable?” Basically he’s asking himself, “What’s most important to me? Is it most important to me to be home alone or is it most important to me to go be with people?”
Jane could ask, “What are the most stressful parts of my life?” and also ask, “What are the things that are keeping me busy that aren’t important?” And by clarifying what she values, what she wants her life to be about, perhaps she decides to say no to a couple of extra responsibilities at work so that she has extra time for her husband or kids. Or maybe she carves out some time for herself to practice self-care and rest and relax.
So by taking a big-picture look, like, “What do I want my life to be about? How do I want my life to be going?” you can get a lot of clarity about what to keep and what to let go of. Fred could say, “Is it worth it for me to give that presentation even though it’s hard?” Or he could say, “Am I willing to spend less time with friends so that I can work hard on that presentation?” He values his grades, he values his friends.
And values clarification is asking, “What do I really care about most in life? Do I care most about comfort or people? Is avoiding things more important to me than facing them?” And that leads us into the last step of processing anxiety.
5. Act or Accept
Step five is act or accept. So we can spend all day thinking about anxiety. We can be willing to feel anxiety. We can explore it. We can clarify it. But if we don’t choose to act, our lives are still probably going to stink. So here’s where you get to choose to act or to accept.
Now, with many situations we can find one small thing to change. So if that’s the case, just plan some action that lines up with your values. This could be something like, “I’m going to get more sleep” or “I’m going to organize one area in my house” or “I’m gonna set one boundary.”
But in some situations there’s nothing you can do to change the situation, or at the very least there’s nothing helpful you can do. Now, we can always find some way to run amok, to bang our head against the wall, to try to force other people to change, but it’s often better to choose to let it go.
So in this step we’ve already clarified what we can and can’t change, and now we’re choosing what we’re going to act on and what we’re going to accept and when we need to accept things that are out of our control.
In this case, we make space for our emotions. You can handle feeling things. You can get really good at feeling. You can handle having emotions. You can also practice. When you’re in the acceptance part of this you can practice some body-calming exercises. So what does this look like?
So with social anxiety, Bob asks, “What do I really care about? Do I want to have friends? Do I want to be friendly? Am I healthy without them?”
So most people experience some social anxiety, and actually caring about people comes with worrying if you said something mean or something like that. So are you willing to engage with life, with friends even if it makes you uncomfortable? Are you willing to interact with people even if you’re not perfect, even if maybe you don’t say the right thing? Can you engage with people on a real, vulnerable, human level?
I think deep down most people value this real connection, and making the choice to live your life, to love and to connect with others is more valuable than sitting home because you’re afraid you’ll mess up and be judged.
If you value living life, you make it a small choice, like, “Oh, I will go to the party this week” or “I will call up Amy and ask her if she wants to hang out,” etc. So this step is all about just choosing some small action that you’re gonna take, and then take it.
So let’s look at the general anxiety example. Jane has been spending a lot of time trying to distract herself from her anxiety, but after exploring it Jane realizes, “I’m stressed out because my room is a mess and I can’t pay my bills.” So she says, “I’m gonna clean my room, and then I’m going to ask my brother about how to budget.” These are actual problems that need actual action.
Don’t just cope with the anxiety; resolve the problem, and the anxiety around it will go away.
With most situations we benefit from combining action with acceptance. So with performance anxiety, Fred can’t make the anxiety go away, and it often makes it worse to try to not feel anxious.
So I get really shaky sometimes when I do public speaking, and if I try to force myself to calm down it usually makes me feel more anxious. So instead I say something like, “It’s worth it for me to try to help others, so I’m willing to accept that it also comes with some anxiety.” And this just means that I care.
So I make space for those emotions and sensations, and I’m going to choose to feel my feelings and act on my values, and I’m going to make the video anyway, or I’m going to do the presentation anyway. This is how you process anxiety.
And just so you know, the vast majority of the time when we face our fears, when we keep showing up, we go to the party, we take the test, we give a presentation, then our brain learns, “You survived. That wasn’t actually dangerous.” And most of the time your brain actually decreases your anxiety over time when you face your fears.
But even if it doesn’t, Fred, Jane, and Bob, and you, you’re still living the life that you value. So even if it’s uncomfortable, Bob still sees friends, Fred still does the presentation, and Jane cleans her room. And because they’re living their values, their lives are rich and meaningful.
You really can learn to process through anxiety, and when you do, a lot of it will resolve. That smoke alarm won’t keep blaring all the time. But having anxiety can motivate you to solve problems, create safety, and take action. So experiencing some anxiety is about caring about life, and because of that I hope that never goes away completely.
I hope you found this video helpful. If you want to learn more of the in-depth skills to process emotions and get the workbook with exercises, check out my course How to Process Your Emotions. Thank you for reading, and take care.