I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine. Her name is Nancy.
Nancy’s the nervous type. She’s always second guessing and “what-iffing.” At times, she’s downright annoying.
To be honest, she’s not that much fun to be around. Still, she’s one of my people. I literally couldn’t live without her.
The truth is, Nancy is the name with which I’ve christened my anxiety. Negative Nancy, to be exact.
It may not be original, but it’s effective. Let me explain.
For many of us, anxiety is simply a part of life. More than that, it’s actually a hardwired survival response, also known as the fight-flight-or-freeze response. If we were, say, being chased by a tiger, we’d really want that anxiety to kick in, so we’d have the good sense to hightail it out of there.
On the other hand, anxiety can get in the way of day-to-day living.
In the absence of tigers, this ancient evolutionary response can still get triggered by less-than-tiger-sized events in the modern world.
When this happens, the once-helpful survival response can become an impediment to living life with ease and joy.
For me, it’s vitally important that I differentiate between the helpful thoughts and the unhelpful thoughts that belong in the garbage bin. This process can mean the difference between being subject to our unhelpful negative thoughts and having agency in the face of them.
This is where Nancy comes in.
Whenever I find myself in a situation where anxious thoughts start taking over, I remind myself that all is well. It’s just Nancy coming for a visit.
Instead of identifying with the thoughts, this silly, imaginary mechanism allows me to distance myself from the anxious thinking and to identify the pattern playing out, instead.
Then I can see the situation for what it is: my active survival response kicking in.
On top of that, personifying anxiety as a high-strung, well-meaning worry-wart gives me an opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of my overzealous amygdala, a part of the brain that becomes active when strong emotions are triggered.
Instead of staying caught in negative thought loops, I can take a step back and laugh at the situation. In the best of cases, this interruption can even short-circuit the anxiety altogether and leave me chuckling at the irony of it all.
An imaginary conversation with Nancy can go something like this.
Situation: I made a mistake on an important deliverable at work.
Anxious thought: “I’m going to get fired.”
My response: “Hey Nance, welcome back! I see you noticed I messed up on that work assignment today. I appreciate you popping in to check on me. The thing is, in reality, that mistake was a lot more minor than you think. I’ve done some great work recently, too, so don’t worry about it!”
A little dialogue like this accomplishes several things:
- It gives me distance and perspective.
- It engages my overactive mind in a constructive, creative game rather than an ineffective anxious pattern.
- It makes me giggle.
- It gives me appreciation for my anxiety.
By giving the anxious thought a role to play, I often find the severity of the emotion tied to the thought diminishes.
This allows me to approach the situation more objectively and choose whether I think the initial thought is really all that grounded in reality or helpful for me at the moment.
One thing is certain: The anxious mind can be incredibly creative. It can come up with scenarios that have little bearing on the here and now.
Giving my anxious brain a fun diversion, like playing the role of Nancy is a way for me to detach from my anxious thoughts, rather than getting bogged down by them.
For me, making light of anxious feelings is one of the best ways to guide myself back to a state of ease. It turns a stressful situation into something playful, taking away the sense of heaviness.
This isn’t meant to belittle the experience of anxiety, which I can attest is absolutely no fun at all. It’s simply a way to invite myself out of stress and into a state of lightheartedness.
A 2018 study noted that laughter can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the rest and digest response. The same study showed that simply hearing laughter can have a relaxing effect.
Chatting with Nancy like she’s a well-intentioned, but slightly excitable, friend helps me reorient the experience of anxiety.
My initial instinct is to run away from the scary, unpleasant thoughts and sensations that anxiety can bring up. Unfortunately, pushing anxiety away only feeds the “flight” aspect of the stress response, often making it even bigger.
Acknowledging Nancy for making her best effort to protect me is a reminder that, in many respects, my mind is doing its job. It’s simply looking out for me.
If you want to put this technique to the test, the steps are simple.
Come up with your anxiety alter ego’s identity.
Get creative and have fun with names. I’m personally a huge fan of alliteration. Don’t skip this step, as naming the anxious thoughts can help you disidentify with them.
Create an over-the-top caricature.
Give them a set of traits and characteristics. Maybe they’re a doomsdayer always thinking the worst will happen. Maybe they’re an annoying neighbor who pops in at inconvenient times. The more exaggerated, the better.
Create thought buckets
Preemptively decide what kind of thoughts belong to your anxiety doppelgänger and which ones belong to you. The less based in reality or the more unhelpful the thought, the more you can pass it on to your stressed-out sidekick.
For instance, if you often get anxious about work topics, a thought like, “I’m going to get fired” can belong to your anxiety alter ego. A thought like, “I can try to do a better job next time” can belong to you.
It’s best to establish these categories before you’re in the heat of an anxious moment, not during. Once you already have your general buckets defined, you’ll have them at the ready when anxiety crops up.
Pro-tip: This technique also works for other hard to manage emotions, like anger, impatience, boredom, or fear.
Above all, naming anxiety and giving it a personality is a reminder that you don’t have to identify with it. While anxiety may be a part of the programming of your nervous system, it doesn’t define who you are.
Experiencing anxiety doesn’t mean you can’t also be adventurous, silly, lighthearted, or bold.
Anxiety is a feeling, and you’re so much more than that.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.