5 Steps on How to Stop Freaking Out
Anxiety isn’t ruining your life, your thoughts about it are
Hello and welcome to the freakout club. You get a card and everything. It says on it: “I’m currently freaking out right now, please try later for normal human behaviour”. It’s not really a useful card if I’m honest.
The freakout club is also free to join, but full disclosure, it costs you in opportunities and peace of mind. Oh and you have to join, your brain says so.
I’ve suffered from anxiety for years. It’s manifested itself in different ways; an OCD, panic attacks, bullying thoughts, self-harming, blushing, a dry mouth and watering eyes when speaking in public and a pervasive nameless dread, probably what some would call general anxiety disorder, or GAD.
As in, oh Gad, this sucks.
It sounds very dramatic but mostly I feel fine. Still, as I’ve always said, you feel fine, until you don’t feel fine.
In this article I want to offer you some genuinely workable solutions for dealing with anxiety to make it a powerful ally rather than a looming enemy. Some of these techniques you might have heard, others you definitely won’t have.
Interested? Let’s begin.
1. Acknowledge your anxiety
Labels aren’t usually helpful, but in terms of anxiety, it’s essential you separate yourself from the fear and bullying thoughts. Sticking all these swirling emotions under the umbrella of “anxiety” enables you to observe them without identifying them as you.
Acknowledging you have anxiety isn’t making excuses or playing the victim (so stop telling yourself it is), it’s quite the opposite, it’s about realising you are a rational human with a condition to be managed. You’re not flawed, crazy, or beyond help. Allow yourself to stand back and think, “These feelings are not the real me, they’re a condition.”
Compartmentalising anxiety means you can stop beating yourself up when it runs a-mock and begin to take steps to recognise it as a “thing” that can be addressed, can be treated, can be eased.
2. Accept the anxious feelings
Now, here’s where it gets nuanced. Before you rush off to stick your own big GAD label on your back, this labelling comes with its own complications, as I found out.
The label can create a sort of you versus anxiety battle in your head.
Separating yourself from anxiety to observe and understand it is useful (Buddhism has banged on about the self being separate from the mind for a thousand years, it’s even a tenant of today’s cognitive behavioural therapy) but there needs to be more to this mental model than a mere label. Pitting yourself against anxious emotions means anxiety is still seen as “the enemy.”
Here’s the daunting part: you have to make anxiety your friend.
This is very possible, and I will explain how. To accept it, welcome it and even be thankful for it is when you can quell the storm in your mind.
I know this sounds like hippy nonsense, but I can testify it works. To welcome anxiety in when it rears its ugly head takes some initial effort, but it’s very possible, and here’s how it’s done.
3. Reframe the anxiety
First, a quick story for context, as it’s important for you to know how I managed to harness anxiety.
A couple of years ago, I hired a mindset coach and we talked in detail about my anxious disposition. He explained anxiety was nothing more than friendly warnings from my mind. It wasn’t me versus my mind, it was my mind trying to help.
This seems obvious now, but to actively view anxiety as an attempt to protect me was a game-changer. Suddenly anxiety wasn’t something happening to me, it was just well-intentioned information. It was trying to help.
Former Special Forces operator Ant Middleton wrote in his book ‘The Fear Bubble’ that anxiety is just your mind and body saying “get ready”. It’s a way for your brain to give you the tools to deal with danger. Even if there isn’t any.
Anxiety isn’t a bully, it’s an over-protective friend trying to help, it’s just clumsy and can’t tell the difference between a parachute jump and going into a work meeting. Don’t feel anger and dread when anxiety pops up, acknowledge it, thank it for trying its best, but tell it not to worry, You’ve got this.
Remember, you and anxiety aren’t enemies, you’re on the same team.
“Anxiety is an even better teacher than reality, for one can temporarily evade reality by avoiding the distasteful situation; but anxiety is a source of education always present because one carries it within.” — Rollo May
4. Use the 'puppy technique'
Using all this information, I picture anxiety as a puppy.
That’s right, a goddamn puppy. You know how a puppy loves you but is also a bit out of control? That’s anxiety.
Imagine the postman knocking on the door, your puppy will go crazy, barking, jumping on the sofa, thinking there’s a threat. Just like anxiety.
The puppy wants to help but it’s stupid and hyperactive, so instead, it just runs around in circles and freaks out. And what do you do with the puppy? You don’t kick it and hurt it, you don’t hate it. You calm it down, give it a rub, kiss it, tell it things are OK. You might even thank it for being brave and trying to protect the house.
You don’t hate it. It’s a clueless puppy! So then, if this is what anxiety is also doing, why do you hate anxiety?
When anxiety rears its (now cute puppy) head acknowledge it, thank it and tell it things are OK, just like you would with a puppy. Comfort your anxiety.
Personally, I go further, I imagine the puppy on my shoulder, barking into my ear. When anxiety comes up, I can “hear” it barking away. Yes yes, I think, I know, but it’s OK, there is no danger. Sshhh now.
This sounds crazy I know, but it helps. Anxiety has gone from this giant, menacing, all-consuming black cloud, to a cute puppy that loves me and needs to be told the postman (or, any real-world activity giving you anxiety like going to work, a social situation, a speech, or even just sitting watching TV in the evening) isn’t dangerous.
Anxiety loves you. Love it back, thank it for showing up and tell it you’ve got it from here.
5. Use anxiety as an energy
One more thing. Puppies have boundless energy. So does anxiety. And anxiety gives that energy to you. Sure, when you’re trying to sleep it’s a gift you don’t want, but often you can take that energy and use it. Think of the increased heartbeat, shaky hands and dry mouth as symptoms of a nitro boost, an energy surge. It’s a power-up, like when Mario eats a mushroom and grows twice his normal size.
I have an actor friend who told me anxiety and excitement are the same emotion. Before a big performance he tells himself “I’m excited!” and suddenly all that swirling energy is good, fun almost, not harmful.
This takes practice, but again, it’s understanding anxiety is trying to help. It’s a gift. Just a weird one you have to know how to use and deal with.
Final Thoughts and all that Jerry Springer Style Stuff
These mental models are a holistic system – use them together to accept, calm and use anxiety as you see fit.
Positively reframing anxiety puts you in the driving seat. You can’t beat anxiety into submission as it’s part of you. Instead, understanding it’s there to protect you, to give you energy, to help you out, frees you from the dread that comes with it.
The more you avoid fear, the more it will have power over you. Using this method, you’re facing fear, and when you do, you realise it’s got four legs a waggy tail and it loves you very much.