“I’m exhausted,” said Della from my computer screen. We were meeting on Zoom during the Covid-19 lockdown. “I’m trying to work from home while I take care of my kids,” she said. “My husband may lose his job. The whole world is going crazy. I’m nervous all the time: I can’t sleep, can’t relax, can’t take it any more. Help!”
Della had zeroed in on two different forces that were combining to wear her down. First, her life situation was incredibly stressful. Second—and this is the important part—she wasn’t able to relax. Without rest, sleep, and inner quiet, Della couldn’t heal from daily wear and tear. She wanted ideas for entertaining her children, finishing her work, and encouraging her husband. But none of those would help unless Della could find a way to feel at ease. Her biggest enemy—and quite possibly yours—wasn’t any external situation. It was anxiety.
Anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness in the world. Its prevalence is rising so fast, The New York Times has called it “the inner pandemic.” This makes sense when you consider the world around us: economic disruption, crazy politics, climate change. It’s all legitimately scary. But if we get stuck in anxiety, fear stops playing its healthy role—keeping us safe—and becomes our worst enemy. It can ruin our health, our careers, our relationships. Now more than ever, we need to understand why we feel so anxious, and how to calm down.
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How fear is supposed to work
Healthy fear is like being shot out of a cannon: We see a threat, avoid it, and then relax. Anxiety is more like being haunted: vague, continuous, ever present. Most animals simply don’t have the capacity to sustain fear if they’re not in immediate danger.
For instance, one day in Kenya, I saw a lion sleeping off a major binge, its belly full and round as a beach ball. As I watched, a wildebeest walked right up, honking loudly. The lion opened one eye and stared as if to say, “Seriously? Are you trying to make me kill you?” Then it heaved itself up and waddled toward the wildebeest, which took off like a rocket. The lion stopped. Instantly, with its would-be-murderer still in plain view, the wildebeest also relaxed and began to graze.
It occurs to me now that Della has probably felt more fear during our Zoom appointment than that wildebeest felt in its entire life. One reason for this is that your average wildebeest would struggle to win a battle of wits with a cashew, while Della has a brilliant human brain. And therein lies the problem.
Your brain’s anxiety glitches
There are two features of human brains that can turn our intelligence into anxiety generators. The first is called the “negativity bias.” We’re wired to focus on dangerous things, rather than safe ones. For instance, if someone gave you a basket containing six adorable kittens and one cobra, you wouldn’t focus on the cats. You’d probably scream “Snake!” and throw that basket across the room (at least, that’s what I would do). Because it helps us survive, we evolved a very strong tendency to focus on dangerous things above everything else.
The second reason we’re vulnerable to anxiety is that the fight-or-flight mechanism at the center of our brains can’t tell the difference between imagined situations and real ones. As I chat with Della, her family is safe and comfortable. There’s no physical danger in the room where she’s sitting. But Della’s mind is full of terrors. She pictures her children dying of Covid, her husband jobless and depressed, the whole family out on the street.
These thoughts are triggering Della’s fight-or-flight mechanism as if they were real situations. It’s as if she’s being charged by a lion—but since the feared situations exist only in her head, there’s nowhere to run. Her fight-or-flight mechanism is stuck in the “on” position. It floods Della’s body with stress hormones, preventing her from relaxing into the “rest and restore” state.
The way out of anxiety
Once we realize that anxiety comes from these two brain glitches (first, that everything is negative, and second, that the horrors we imagine are actually right here, right now), we can start to move away from the anxious state. We do this by gently questioning the information screaming through our anxious minds.
For example, when Della says, “The whole world is going crazy,” it certainly sounds true. But I ask her to study it more closely, to be absolutely accurate. Is everything in the entire world literally crazy? Can she think of anything positive or sane? At first, the answer is no. Della has been bombarded with bad news and chaotic change for so long that her negativity bias is jacked up to maximum.
To help her get out of these anxious mental ruts, I ask Della to do an exercise I call “sense drenching.” If you’d like to feel less anxious, grab a pencil—or just fire up your imagination—and try it for yourself.
Exercise: Sense drenching to switch on your “rest and restore” mechanism
- Please list three things you love to taste.
- Now list three things you love to hear.
- Now list three things you love to see.
- Now list three things you love to smell.
- Now list three things you love to feel against your skin.
- Imagine a scenario where all the items above are present. Write a brief description. For example: “I’m cuddled up in bed sipping hot chocolate and eating a perfect cinnamon roll. My cat is purring on my lap as I stroke her fur. I can hear my children playing outside, and see a beautiful ocean view. Also, I am receiving the best foot massage of my life.”
- Notice how you feel when you’re holding this scenario in mind. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief vacation from anxiety!
Correcting course: Mental hygiene
This exercise always helps me feel better, and now it’s working for Della, too. It’s not a long-term solution to life problems, but it helps us get a little space from our anxiety glitches. We can begin to feel that life contains good experiences as well as bad ones, and this thought corrects our negativity bias. Then we can notice that most of our fears are imaginary. As Mark Twain put it, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened.”
Of course, we don’t set out to have a negativity bias, or to get triggered by imaginary dangers. It happens without our even knowing it. But once we begin steering our brains away from anxiety, science has shown we can actually physically change the structures of our brains.
Once Della has detached from fear just a bit (by doing the “sense drenching” exercise), I teach her two “mental hygiene” hacks to steer away from anxiety. Practiced regularly, these simple steps not only give us a little relief in the moment but actually change our brains, making sure we don’t get stuck in anxiety again.
First mental hygiene hack: Mindfulness
“Mindfulness” is the practice of paying close attention to everything in the actual present moment. Simply observing what’s around us, while breathing slowly and deeply, brings us into the truth of our situation, ushering in peace.
I ask Della to try five minutes of mindfulness, noticing and naming what’s in the room where she’s sitting. She mentions the soft sweater she’s wearing, the beautiful colors of a painting on the wall, an email from a loved one that makes her smile, the amazing fact that even though she and I are miles apart, computer technology is letting us talk face to face. As the list grows, Della’s energy gets brighter and more cheerful.
Second mental hygiene hack: Sweet, simple scenes
The next practice is remembering and describing, in minute detail, experiences Della recalls that were simple and sweet. I don’t want her to focus on big memories, like her wedding or a bucket-list vacation—those are too rare. Instead, I invite her to focus on small delights. She remembers sleeping in on a Saturday morning, sitting in a coffee shop watching city lights, calling her sister to discuss a new book they both loved.
After five minutes, Della seems much happier. She says her anxiety has dropped dramatically. By correcting for both her negativity bias and her tendency to imagine danger, she’s accessed a more accurate view of the world. She’s back in integrity, back in her truth.
Safety in the truth
If we use them, these simple “hacks” add up. Each repetition makes us a little less prone to anxiety. We’ll still have the healthy fear that helps us sprint away from danger, but we’ll lose the constant, life-draining uneasiness that does more harm than good. We’ll see that there’s almost always more to celebrate than there is to fear, and that we risk nothing by filling our memories and imaginations with sweetness, instead of panic. In the mental jungle of our minds, the lion finally falls asleep.
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