The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Most anxiety stems from self-fabricated stories based on speculation and assumption. We tell ourselves fictional stories about the people in our lives or the circumstances that befall us. We do it all the time. Seldom do we notice what we're doing.
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Anxiety is an epidemic. Studies show anxiety now constitutes the most prevalent mental health problem worldwide.

For most of us, anxiety is derived from outside forces such as work, school, finances, and relationships, as well as our own negative self-talk. When our imagination gets the best of us and uncertainty forcibly grabs the steering wheel in our minds, we have a way of making ourselves anxious.

But what if there is a way we can free ourselves from becoming anxious? It begins with asking challenging questions about the stories we tell ourselves.

Have you ever jumped to conclusions without having all of the information? Or have you searched for answers only to find yourself feeling even more anxious in the end? Do any of your relationships suffer from false assumptions and unnecessary guessing games?

If so, you're not alone. Every day, we make up our own remarkable stories. Our boss asks to speak with us, our teenager is out too late, or a friend doesn't return our call, and instantly we fill in the blanks, creating riveting scripts. These stories aren't simply inaccurate; they're destructive. They isolate us and damage our relationships. They are a major contributor to our anxiety.

Most anxiety stems from self-fabricated stories based on speculation and assumption. We tell ourselves fictional stories about the people in our lives or the circumstances that befall us. We do it all the time. Seldom do we notice what we're doing. Even more rarely do we see the connection between our incorrect assumptions about others and our internal anxiety level.

There is an undeniable connection.

Because the stories we tell ourselves about others are more compelling and self-satisfying than reality, we relate more to the person in our head than the person right in front of us. When we start doing that on a consistent basis, we bring stress to the relationship. We're unaware that the stories we've created about the other person have caused this unnecessary anxiety.

So how can we become more adept at controlling our anxiety in light of these stories?

1. Notice your body and emotions.
This one's simple, but often overlooked. When you feel your heart rate increase, or you begin to sweat, or your breathing quickens, pause and ask yourself, "What am I feeling right now?" and "Why am I feeling this way?" Becoming aware of both your internal and external reactions to circumstances is a foundational step toward effectively handling anxiety.

2. Breathe deeply.
For a few moments, take deep breaths and focus on your breathing, clearing your mind until your heart rate returns to normal. Such an intentional pause helps realign your body and mind.

3. Connect with your environment.
When anxiety is severe, focus on your breathing and connect with your environment. While continuing to take deep breaths, take a moment to notice the space that you are in. If you are in a room, focus your attention on the material items in the room: couch, table, picture, lamp, etc. If you are outdoors, notice your surroundings: tree, cloud, water, building, storefront, etc. Focus on anything that helps you attach yourself to what is in front of you in the here and now. When we are anxious, we are disconnected from our bodies, meaning our brain is somewhere else (usually in the future) and our bodies are in the present.

4. Control what you can control.
Though much is outside of your control, there are certain issues you can control when you find yourself in a troubling moment. Maybe it means remaining silent in the face of unfounded criticism, finally calling your parents, or seeking professional help. It doesn't have to be a large gesture as long as it's a gesture toward finding a solution to help lessen your anxiety in the moment.

5. Let go of what you can't control.
When an anxiety-inducing circumstance occurs, we're quickly reminded how much is outside of our control. In this step, name every person, issue, or circumstance you can't control. Consider placing these "uncontrollables" in a mental storage unit located far away from your present thoughts. Since these issues are beyond your control, there's no reason to allow them to occupy valuable space in your mind and body.

6. Talk to yourself in a positive manner.
Tell yourself that whatever you're currently enduring is not as important as your life overall. Disallow the discouraging circumstance from robbing you of your power, time, and emotional energy. Remind yourself of the joys of your life, from the broad (being alive) to the specific (an excellent cup of coffee). Positive self-talk affirms that your trying circumstance carries less weight than your life itself.

7. Do something life-giving in the moment.
This step is different for every person but the basics of it remain the same. After working through the steps above, make an intentional effort to do something life-giving. Depending on the person, this could mean going for a run, listening to music, praying, connecting with a friend, or going to see a movie. It should be an experience that energizes you. This step could become a masked coping mechanism, so it must be used in moderation. However, its usefulness lies in the fact that doing something life-giving releases endorphins, which cause you to feel better, during a time when you need to assert control over your emotions.

8. Repeat steps 1 through 7 as necessary.
If you haven't experienced a notable decrease in your anxiety after working through steps one through seven above, start over. Major stressors may require multiple passes through these steps. However, if your stress level seems to maintain at a particularly high level even after working through these steps, seek professional help. The steps I've outlined above can help many people with daily stressors, but deep-seated issues often require in-depth therapy, and there's no shame in seeking qualified help when you need it.

Please share with me how you deal with stress, and what activity you do that is a "life-giving" remedy for anxiety. To continue the conversation, email me directly at I'd love to hear if these seven steps have helped you reign in your anxiety. They aren't a quick-fix or cure-all, but I know from personal and professional experience that following these steps can help decrease anxiety in your life.

(This blog is not intended as a substitute for the therapy or medical advice of physicians. The reader should regularly consult a therapist, psychiatrist or physician in matters relating to his/her mental or physical health, and particularly with respect to any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.)

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