No magical cure for anxiety, but with persistence, you can train your mind to relax
Lawyers often ask me for the secret to experiencing less anxiety and stress. I wish there was an easy fix for breaking the habit of constant anxiety and worry, but there is no magical cure. Chances are, your mind has had the practice of being in an anxious state for many years (or decades). It’s going to take time and persistence to break your mind of this habit. The good news is that your mind can be trained!
There are three strategies and lessons that I found invaluable in working with anxiety.
Anxiety is subjective. Anxiety is the subjectively unpleasant feeling of dread or worry about some future event. Often, when working with anxiety, we focus on the event—the upcoming hearing, waiting for the judge’s order, waiting for a call from opposing counsel, waiting for the test results from the doctor, etc. We blame the event for the anxious feelings. However, focusing on the event only exacerbates the anxiety because the mind is hardwired toward imagining the worst-case scenario, the so-called negativity bias.
The next time you are feeling anxious, take a step back and look at the thoughts that are triggering the anxiety. Chances are, you are only rehearsing the direst outcome, overlooking the best-case scenario or even more neutral outcomes.
It’s helpful to see that someone else in your exact situation may experience a different level of anxiety or even no anxiety. It’s subjective. In fact, you could also be experiencing this dreaded event with a different level of anxiety under a different set of circumstances. Perhaps you are more anxious because you recently received an unfavorable review at work or because you’re sleep-deprived.
The reason why this is important to recognize is that it puts the feelings of anxiety more within your control. You may have little or no control over the outcome of the event, but you can begin to see that you do have control over your own response. Rather than focus on trying to fix the uncontrollable or the unknowable, you can take a gentler stance toward yourself and focus on changing your response by relaxing the anxious mind.
Anxiety is a set of thoughts and physiological responses. When I first became pregnant with my daughter, I experienced an unprecedented amount of anxiety. There was simply no way of knowing whether I would be able to make it through the 40 weeks. Especially during the first trimester, I would regularly find myself Googling terms like “likelihood of miscarriage at 35 days.” I was trying to do the impossible—trying to find some reassurance that I would be able to deliver a healthy baby. Knowing that stress was also bad for the pregnancy only exacerbated the situation.
Even though I knew I was only focusing on the possibility of a negative outcome, assurances from others to “think positive” or “not worry” only added further stress and frustration. The practice that I found to be useful was to acknowledge the anxious thoughts, then shift the focus to the physiological response.
For example, when the thought “I am going to lose this baby” would pop into my head, I would gently label the thought as an anxious thought. I would then do a body scan to note the impact the thought was having on my body. Often, I was breathing faster or holding my breath, and I’d notice a constriction in my stomach.
I would then focus on letting go and relaxing my body. This could be standing up to change my body position, taking some deep breaths, making myself a cup of tea or doing some light stretching.
Change the focus to let go of anxiety. Even though you may logically understand that if you could simply stop thinking the anxiety-producing thoughts, you’d stop being anxious, trying to not think the thoughts isn’t easy. It’s akin to trying to not think of a pink elephant.
However, there are practices you can engage in to get your mind to gently unhook the distressing thoughts. One effective practice is grounding. There are many different ways of doing a grounding exercise, but in its essence, it’s a tool used to bring yourself into the present moment using your five senses—sound, touch, smell, taste and sight.
Next time you’re feeling anxious, try the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding exercise.
5: Find five things you can see around you. Mentally note what you see. For example, a red chair, a water faucet, a vase of flowers, a sliding door and a stool.
4: Look for four things you can touch around you. It could be your left hand, a pen, keyboard and your shirt.
3: Note three things you hear. For example, people talking outside your office, a car driving by or the car radio.
2: Acknowledge two things you can smell. Perhaps it’s the bag of potato chips on your desk or the scent of fabric softener on your shirt.
1: Acknowledge one thing you can taste. Can you notice the residue flavor of lunch in your mouth?
If your mind returns to the anxious thoughts during the exercise, gently return to the exercise. There’s no need to berate yourself or get upset with yourself.
There are no shortcuts to training the anxious mind and to letting go of worries. But with practice, it’s possible to calm the mind to experience more ease.
This article first appeared in the September-October 2019 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline “No Magical Cure for Anxiety: But with persistence, you can train your mind to relax.”
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms on stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She co-wrote The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with the JC Law Group in San Francisco.