Last week, I talked about how your perception—not the reality—of the situations that freak you out the most actually determines just how anxious you get about them.
So, if you want to control your anxiety during a specific event—like flying or public speaking—it’s important to take the time to figure out the negative perceptions you’re bringing into each of these trigger moments.
But that’s not the whole story. Those strategies are absolutely critical when your start your journey to heal your anxiety. They can help you recognize negative thoughts you didn’t even realize you had, and just how flawed and harmful they are.
They also allow you to build confidence that you can face your triggers and feel less anxious as you experience them.
But, the long-term goal is about more than feeling “less anxious.” You want to live a confident, vibrant life. You want to be courageous. Even fearless. You don’t want to just alleviate your anxiety, you want to heal it. And replace it with radiant self-assurance.
And to do that, you’ve got to focus on creating a new, stronger, mental foundation. A positive baseline on which you’ll build better thoughts and behaviors and a new self-image.
In other words, you demolish the darkness not by analyzing or fact-checking it, but by letting in that light!
Now, this is much easier said than done. Because our brains are hardwired to focus in on the negative.
When we were all cave folk, our survival depended on our brain’s ability to identify negative threats and react. So, the brain, when it heard the stomp of a dinosaur or another tribe eyeing up the neighborhood, said “Hey buddy, let’s move! It’s time to take action!”
Needless to say, the cave brain had to stay on the lookout at all times. No vacations at the cave! So it developed a way to stay super sensitive and pick-up on danger. That’s all great for cave-times, but that same alert system is still in place today, and keeps us looking out for danger, even when the stakes are a quite a bit lower.
So it’s not your fault that you struggle with anxiety, or that you live in an anxious-prone world. It’s a natural evolutionary feature.
“Oh no,” you say? “We’re all doomed to a life of freaking out in our caves?” No, there’s good news! There’s always good news! Positive psychology has shown us that we don’t have to wait another 100 million years for our brains to catch up and adapt to the world we live in today, where death isn’t always just around the corner.
If we’re mindful and intentional about the thoughts and realities we want to cultivate, we can vastly change our brains in this lifetime.
It’s all about creating new beliefs. And these new beliefs are the light at the end of the anxiety tunnel.
How do you create new beliefs? By intentionally becoming aware of new things we didn’t notice before and looking at what we already know in a new way.
It’s a bit like practicing gratitude, but creating new beliefs goes a lot further. When you practice gratitude, you start to shine the light on the good that’s in your life. You see your life in a new way … full of things to be grateful for, instead of adversity and lacking.
Along the way, you also start to notice things you never realized. For example, maybe you think you don’t have a lot of support when things get tough. If you take note of how grateful you are for the few good friends you have, you may start to realize just how loved and supported you are and you do in fact have many people to lean on when times get tough.
But like I said, creating new beliefs goes further …
Let’s say you want to create the new belief: I am able to confidently navigate my job search.
You start by noticing new things to support this belief. Here are some of the things you can take a look at for supporting evidence:
- Current or recent events: I am very qualified, have a strong resume ready to go and I just had a great conversation with a recruiter that said I my background was a good fit for the role I want. I actually am the ideal candidate!
- The past: I have a lot of experience in my field that can prepare me to have informed conversations during any interviews. I can answer any question they throw at me with confidence and clarity!
- Your future: I can continue to take classes that help me improve my performance in the field as time goes on. This determination really does make me a perfect fit for my dream job.
- Your relationships: I have made great contacts in my industry that can help me get interviews and offer recommendations, because people really like working with me.
- Other people’s experiences: My college roomate just went through a career change and successfully used her network and leveraged her experience to land her dream job. So it’s possible for me too!
Then, you need to repeat this regularly, so you take those new beliefs from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. From state to trait—so that the feelings you experience when you examine this “evidence” become a characteristic of your personality that you accept as permanent.
If you don’t do this regularly, the negativity bias will creep right back in.
This is the number one reason most attempts at personal healing and growth fail. You make a first attempt, but don’t keep at it. You don’t really commit to accepting the changes you’ve made to how you look at things.
But in reality, you come to believe something new by repeatedly installing the experiences—the feeling and emotional connection—of that new belief.
So how do you install these positive beliefs into your long term memory?
Well, the trick is to make it a multi-sensory experience. Try to bring every sensation of experiencing that new belief into your body.
You can do this a number of ways. Reinforce it visually by creating an alter or a vision board that includes pictures or objects that represent the belief to you. So, in the example above, you could put your ass-kicking resume on your alter to help install the confidence created from repeatedly seeing your work experience in your mind.
Meditation can help you manifest the physical sensations you might experience. So if you’ve gotten great feedback from a manager that created a feeling of pride and confidence in your ability to do a great job, think about how that made you feel in your body … a lightness in your chest, a glow in your face, butterflies of excitement in your stomach? Now, meditate on those areas of the body to bring on those sensations.
Would landing your new dream job bring about a feeling of serenity or agency, and would these feelings have a specific smell associated with them? Would it be a calming fragrance like lavender or an empowering scent like rose? If so, surround yourself with that smell.
Then repeat, repeat, repeat. Immerse yourself in everything that this new belief conjures up and you have yourself a positive, self-empowering new belief.