Imagine you’re doing something that gives you anxiety or causes you stress. Maybe you’re about to have a difficult conversation with your boss, or perhaps you’re getting ready for a party where you’ll bump into people you haven’t seen in ages. If your heart is starting to beat faster, you’re not alone. But what if a simple perspective shift could help you manage the clammy hands and racing heartbeat that come with your anxiety — and even help you to be a little thankful for what you’re feeling?
When it comes to negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and even depression, your perception matters: There’s scientific evidence that how we think about our emotions drastically affects how we feel. Have you ever noticed that focusing on how stressful something is makes it feel even more stressful? The reverse can be true too. By focusing on the positive parts of an experience, you can actually reduce stress.
The concept is called “cognitive reappraisal,” and the gist is that by shifting our perspective on emotions, we can actually reduce the duration and intensity of feelings like sadness and anxiety. A 2014 study found that reappraising anxiety as excitement helped people with performance anxiety more than merely focusing on “staying calm.” Another study from 2010 shows that emotional regulation, another term for cognitive reappraisal, can help reduce symptoms of depression.
While cognitive reappraisal has been extensively studied with conditions like clinical anxiety and depression, the same principle could hold true for everyday stress, says Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, an Annapolis, MD-based therapist. How does it work? Rather than focusing on the negative emotion, Cush recommends “turning the table” with a simple mindfulness exercise. The first step: Pay attention to how you perceive your anxiety. If you view stressful emotions as the enemy, Cush says it’s likely you’ll try to outrun them — which can result in even more stress.
“People go to great lengths to avoid feeling or being anxious. Busyness, exercise, perfectionism, meditation, substance use and self-criticism, are just some of the strategies people use so they don’t have to deal with the anxiety. Ironically, it turns out that all the strategies we commonly use so we don’t feel our anxiety can actually make the anxious feelings more intense. As a result, you might even end up experiencing panic attacks,” Cush says.
“Instead of thinking about your anxiety as your enemy or as something that shows up to make you suffer, try thinking of your anxious feelings as a healthy reminder that something might need your attention,” she says. “Maybe you’re feeling sad or lonely. Maybe you’re struggling to meet your own emotional or physical needs. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll make a mistake and be judged. No matter what is making you anxious — and the reason might not be clear — remind yourself that you’ve felt this way before and that it will pass.”
Then — and this is the important step for re-framing your anxiety — talk back to it, whether you simply journal mindfully about how you’re feeling or actually speak to yourself out loud.
“Try telling the anxiety you’re happy that it showed up, because now you can pay attention to your needs,” Cush says. “By tuning into and welcoming the anxiety, you’re creating the space to feel the feelings beneath the anxiety with openness and without judgment. And that trick lessens the intensity and power of the anxiety!”
This article was originally published on Brit + Co.