How To Change Your Relationship With Anxiety
“The words you speak become the house you live in.” — Hafiz
My obsession with language grew out of the realization that self-talk and anxiety drove me towards a life of chronic addiction. Tormented by the voices in my head, I was completely unaware of how they nourished my anxiety.
The science of language and anxiety
Prior to getting clean, anxiety consumed my entire life. This resulted in a tightening around my chest, which developed into a morbid fear of my own heartbeat. A difficult thing to escape for sure.
With the help of meditation, I’m over five years clean, but even today, I get slightly agitated when I hear the word ‘heart’. It’s only a word, but it has an impact.
My own experiences might seem a little extreme, but have you ever woken up in the dead of the night, and felt completely overwhelmed by your own mind. Thoughts racing. Self-talk only making things worse.
Why does this happen?
This is best illustrated by a process known as fear conditioning, a form of learning where actions become associated with fear-producing stimuli. For example, if a person goes to a shopping mall and has a panic attack, they’ll associate future shopping trips with fear and panic.
This form of learning is also evident in language. In one research study, individuals were repeatedly presented with a meaningless word (e.g. “VUK” ) which was followed by an electric shock. This resulted in a learned association where they became fearful of the word “VUK”, even when it was presented on its own.
The word “VUK” was then repeatedly associated with another meaningless word “ZID”, without the shock. The word “ZID” was then presented on its own, and even though it was never directly paired with the shock, it still produced a fearful response.
Words alone provided a vehicle for fear.
Why is this important?
Because it’s not just fear. Language is the currency for many of our psychological experiences. If you think and talk happy, you’ll feel happy. If you think and talk confident, you’ll feel confident. But if you’re mindset is based on anxiety and fear, this is how you’ll act and feel.
Language and anxiety in the real world
Imagine you have a fear of snakes and reptiles. You plan to go on holiday to Mexico, and someone tells you to be careful of Mexican axolotls.
You ask: “what is a Mexican axolotl?”
“A type of salamander”, they say.
You’re unsure what a salamander is, so you check the Oxford English Dictionary. This is what you’ll find: “a mythical lizard-like creature said to live in fire or to be able to withstand its effects.”
You already had a fear of lizards, so now you’re absolutely petrified of Mexican axolotls. You even think of cancelling your holiday.
The thing is, your fear is based purely on language; through what you’ve read, and what you think. You’ve never even seen a picture of a Mexican axolotl. Never mind come face to face with one.
This is what a Mexican axolotl looks like.
Not so scary is it?
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
Unfortunately, this is not true. Words are powerful. Words hurt.
Take anxiety and stress. These are not just mental concepts. They are physical reactions to both real and/or perceived difficulties. Both are linked to our fight and flight response, the body’s reaction to challenging events.
This process evolved as a basic survival mechanism and was highly adaptive thousands of years ago. But we are not fighting sabre-tooth tigers anymore.
We are fighting with our own minds.
We are worrying about deadlines, relationships, money, and popularity.
We are fighting about what we should have done, and what we’re afraid to do.
However, our brains are easily confused. It will spit out signals thinking a deadline is a physical fight. This is the essence of modern day anxiety and is intrinsically linked to language. I can’t fight or run away from my own heartbeat, but tell that to my brain.
“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.” — Emo Philips
Changing your relationship with anxiety
If you want to change your relationship with anxiety, you have two choices: (1) track anxiety-inducing language and replace it, or (2) mindfully observe anxious thoughts and feelings, and accept them without engaging.
1. Tracking your language
We all have a story, and this is written by the words we use. If you tell yourself you suffer from anxiety, you’re going to act accordingly. If you tell yourself you worry, it’s likely that you will. It is therefore critical to choose your words carefully, especially when talking to yourself.
Anxiety is often the result of overthinking and indecision. So words that stop you taking action should be avoided at all costs. For example, “I can’t”, “if only”, and “I must”, should be replaced with proactive language such as “I will”, “I choose to”, and “let’s look at this another way”.
In challenging situations, you should also track the questions you ask yourself. For instance, replacing “why me?” with “what can I do about this?”, will instil a sense of strength, directing you towards corrective action, rather than worrying about your problems.
2. Mindful self-observation
A great way to change your relationship with anxiety is by observing difficult thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations. You simply observe without attachment, rather than being consumed.
For example, if I asked you to observe your bodily sensations, you could take a step back and focus on a specific area, such as your breath. It’s the same for problematic thinking. You might be anxious about an interview, or worrying about money, but it’s possible to take a step back and observe these thoughts. It’s the same for feelings. If I asked you how you feel, you could take a step back and observe how you feel.
The point is, you can take an observer’s perspective of your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. You simply observe, without engaging. When you practice this regularly, you’ll create a space, and when difficult thoughts and feelings arise, they will no longer consume you.
Take away message
Language is the currency for how we think and provides a vehicle for our emotions. If you tell yourself you’re anxious, it’s likely that you’ll feel that way. It’s the same for many of our psychological experiences.
But you don’t have to suffer. If you want to change your relationship with anxiety, you do have a choice.
You can track anxiety-inducing language, and replace it, or you can mindfully observe difficult thoughts and feelings, and accept them without engaging.
By doing so, you will create a sense of detachment. Words will lose their potency, and difficult thoughts and feelings will no longer control you.