Often our first instinct when we feel afraid, sad, or anxious is to turn away—to ignore, distract, and run. We watch YouTube, scroll through internet pages, go for a run, watch TV, hang out with friends, or sleep.
For a long time, I thought this was the appropriate response—that starving the anxiety and other unwanted feelings would make them go away. I believed ignoring them would send them the message they were not welcome and would allow my brain to retrain itself not to go down those pathways.
Boy, was I wrong. Like a child who has a desperate need, the anxiety only kicked and screamed louder and harder. Unlike a child who throws a tantrum because it wants you to buy the toy it sees in a store window, this type of tantrum meant there was a deep need that had not been seen.
Imagine you have a child who has been bullied at school. Every day, the child comes home and throws a tantrum because it doesn’t know how to handle the events of the day—because it doesn’t know how to heal. Imagine, then, that instead of hugging the child close and reassuring it, you ignore it or rebuke it or send it to its room. What would that teach your child?
When anxiety, fear, anger, or any other emotion emerges, it wants your attention—usually because it has a message it feels is important for you to know.
When all these voices bubble up, I still find myself trying to run away, and the more I run, the higher the tension mounts, until I’m caught gasping for air or crumple under a feeling of overwhelming terror.
The antidote is simple. Sit and listen to your fear. Listen to the little voices screaming in your mind, love them, hold them close, and reassure them.
I like to sit on the edge of my bed at night, when the voices are strongest, and invite each of them to speak in turn. I visualize them as little child-like figures coming up to me and telling me what they are afraid of and what they think I need to know. Then, after I let them speak, I answer with, “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind. Rest assured I’m concerned about the same things as you, and I’m taking care of it.” Instantly, the voice falls silent, like a child who has been reassured, sighs deeply, and finally falls into peaceful sleep.
And that’s all it takes. You don’t have to hold all the answers. You just have to listen and validate what the little voices are trying to tell you. Those voices have protected you through a lot, and they are deeply invested in keeping you safe. Now is the time to hear them out and remind them that you are safe and are capable of taking and surviving risks.
Challenge!: Three times this week, especially when the pressure of thoughts and fears build up in your mind, create a space where you can sit with, listen to, and validate each of those voices. No matter how absurd the voices may be (“I’m scared you’ll become homeless if you don’t finish your degree”), validate where they are coming from and reassure them. See how you feel before and after, or, if the idea of visualizing and talking with your thoughts seems strange, think of similar ways to complete the exercise and adjust it to suit your needs.