Overcoming Anxiety and Stress

I wasn't planning to write a newsletter article this month (still recovering from surgery), and this won't be as polished as I would like but the topic is crucially important because it's hard to be organized, on time, or do appropriate or adequate self-care if one is constantly undermined by anxiety or stress.

Yesterday I sent out the following Thought for the Day item:
“Always behave like a duck - keep calm and unruffled on the surface but paddle like the devil underneath.”  Jacob Braude

This is a good prescription for major accomplishments. Calm is essential for great accomplishments – allowing anxiety, fear, nervousness, distress, self-pity, or any other negative emotions take over will derail the likelihood of successful achievement. But staying unruffled does not mean inactivity – quite the contrary – being intensely active and scratching off items from your to-do list is what both allows staying calm and major achievements. Intense activity supports staying calm because you will know that you are doing everything that needs to be done, whether it is managing the business of your life or doing a major project.

REMEMBER: Thinking “quack, quack” whenever anxiety over what you need to do creeps in is a great way to remember this metaphor and make fun of your demons.

A reader replied with the following concerns:
“Not sure I completely agree with the words "paddle like the devil underneath". I do this and I am in a constant state of agitation. It's probably just semantics here but I'd love to hear a bit more of how you deal with anxiety. I do love the part about making fun of our demons.”

It is a good bet that many other people feel the same way: always paddling, but feeling varying amounts of anxiety and stress throughout and wondering why life seems to be such a struggle. The good news is, anxiety and stress are fixable conditions, but the bad news is, it takes a major amount of consistent, persistent, dedicated effort. You have to decide whether the pain of anxiety and stress is worth putting in the long effort needed to learn to control your own mind. It depends upon how uncomfortable anxiety and stress make you, and how much you think these things interfere with the joyous, calm, and productive life you could have.

There are many effective techniques for fighting anxiety, all of which I have used at times in the past (after using them for some time, they aren't needed so much because anxiety doesn't have the power over me that it once did). I used to be riddled with anxiety but I'm largely not any more.

Here are some things I did that radically changed my life for the better:
1. Meditation and other forms of physical and mental relaxation, including calming my breath, exercise, and stretches. Add to this, pausing between each new activity to center and calm myself before doing it. Remembering that my real focus, no matter what I am doing is to maintain that calm centeredness that I want.

2. Remembering the saying, "90% of the things we worry about never come to pass" and realizing what a waste that makes all the energy expended on tying myself up in knots about stuff that isn't going to happen.
         It is also important to remember that your thoughts and feelings are not real (just phantoms that exist only in your mind) and that you can change them. Many people will object to my saying your feelings are not real, that you really do feel them, but all emotions only exist inside your head and they do represent a choice: no emotion is the inevitable result of any event or situation. The proof of this is how differently different people respond to the same situation. What makes our responses different are the stories we tell ourselves about events and situations.

3. Identifying anxiety sources and employing every technique available to reduce the likelihood of every adverse higher probability that is within my power to influence (this is the paddle like the devil part), taking all appropriate actions and trying to be as timely as possible.

4. Rejecting my imagination's tendency to inflate troublesome situations and force it to stick with the here-and-now: what do I need to be doing right here, right now? There is usually a lot.
         In general, I try to keep my emotions out of the role of making decisions. Developing this kind of control is a long process, greatly aided by analyzing actions and seeing what part of your being made them (body, mind or emotions) then re-imagining yourself doing it the way you wish you had or that would be better for other areas of your life. So in this case you would want to start building an image of yourself as someone who is not owned by anxiety.
        Part of this is physical: SMILE, pull your posture as straight as you can make it, and keep the floor of your stomach relaxed (breathing down into that area seems to help me, but the smile alone is nearly magic for dispelling the knots that accumulate in the gut). Make laughter a part of every day's activities. Laughter is powerful for loosening the hold of negative emotions.

5. Being very careful about the language I use to describe situations for myself. If a thought crosses my mind that uses inflated language, I go back and correct it. A tool for keeping language to describe events for yourself within realistic bounds is the “fair witness” concept described in another newsletter (http://optimalorganizations.com/ARTICLES/Decision-making_Made_Easy,Part_I.pdf)

6. Anxiety is a DEMON and like every other demon, it likes to be in charge. The most effective technique for overcoming demons is to make fun of them. They can't stand it and retreat. There are a whole series of techniques for dealing with demons and I am pasting in below a section from my book that deals with this.

7. Acceptance - recognizing that into every life some rain will fall, but I don't have to make it worse by anticipating it emotionally or letting myself stay stuck in the past. There has been lots of rain in my life, and I've survived all of it. Most of it I have learned from, and even the most painful events, are in the past. If new ones come along (as they surely will), I will face them as calmly as I can manage. Much of our difficulty with acceptance is trying to control things we cannot control. The world is a tough place, 90% of what goes on we really can't influence much, if at all. Acceptance is important to keep from bashing our heads into a wall.
    Many people have difficulty with acceptance because they don't like the direction that some change has or is causing. Not liking the new situation doesn't usually change it, and while some resistance is sometimes worthwhile, usually it is not. (This is being said by the erstwhile Queen of Resistance).

Here is some material from my book Overcome Hoarding and Transform Your Life on strategies for coping with negative thoughts:

Changing Thoughts Strategies
If you become aware of negative thoughts arising in your mind, you can make choices:

Dismiss the negative thought
This strategy means dismissing every negative thought that pops into your mind, whether about yourself, another person, or circumstance that upsets you. These thoughts are typically unrealistic, out of proportion, and unhelpful. Ask yourself whether a thought is beneficial or not. If it has no benefit, just dismiss it. Why would you want something that has no benefit in your mind? (Clue: harsh judgments of yourself or others are always worthless.) Knowing the reality of any situation requires understanding that goes beyond judgment. Gentleness, compassion, and inspiration are more effective for creating change than harshness.
     Telling yourself that a negative thought is only your demons (or inferiors or whatever) talking is often the fastest approach to stopping negative thoughts. Just chanting ‘reject’ or ‘stop’ may also help. Other chants such as ‘peace’, ‘calm’, ‘let it go’ may be helpful.

Counter negative thoughts
     Countering negative thoughts is not mere positive thinking, but a thorough and relentless de-bunking of those thoughts, analyzing how they are false and betray our best interests. We delude ourselves in so many ways, and our categorical negative thinking can be depended upon to be the most delusional thoughts. This work must be done when calm – while agitated we do not have the mental resources to analyze our thoughts to find the truth.
     Using pen and paper to analyze your actions and those of anyone with whom you are upset might help to see your opportunities for change or assess the truth of a situation. You have to be willing to consider that you might be wrong. Talking with clear-headed friends and/or counselors may help develop effective counter-thoughts. What won’t work is returning to the same thoughts you have been thinking for a long time without reaching any better conclusions or becoming more at peace with whatever is troubling you. Only a solution-oriented process will help.
     When countering negative thoughts and upsets, you may have to accept responsibility for some part of whatever happened. This should never lead to berating yourself but to trying to learn from the experience and discovering what you can do to prevent it from happening again. Since the only thing that you can control is your own behavior, this study may help prevent repetitions. It is not a matter of “I really screwed that up”, but of “Next time I will handle things this way” and envisioning in detail how you would behave differently. This approach requires a high degree of objectivity and calmness to prevent being overwhelmed by regret or guilt, so do the Transforming Demons exercise as often as is needed to prevent this. Keep in mind that behavioral change is difficult, takes time, and requires persistence, consistency, patience, and compassion.

Giving thanks for all your blessings is a great way to banish demons. Many negative thoughts and emotions are rooted in fear and self-pity, both extremely damaging to mental health. Recounting your many blessings cuts through that self-delusion and self-centeredness.
     Writing a daily gratitude list for all the good things in life that you have, especially if they are things that others do not have (such as vision when others are blind, hearing when others are deaf, etc.) helps to gain perspective. The more complete your gratitude list, the better. Take time to really experience the beauty and glories of the things you are grateful for. Taking things for granted by not consciously appreciating and experiencing them means that you aren’t really grateful for them.
    Part of gratitude may be adjusting expectations. Life is never going to unfold the way that we want it to and nothing stays the same. Appreciating your current reality rather than pining for the past makes you healthier, happier, and more truly grateful.

Distract yourself from negative thoughts
Putting a pleasant, healthy thought in place, such as remembering a book you liked, a TV program or movie you saw, or a recreational activity you enjoy or engaging in some activity that occupies your mind, such as going for a walk in a lovely spot, may dislodge negativity. (I went through periods when I would recap the entire action of long books to keep my mind occupied and away from painful thoughts.)

Laugh at negative thoughts
Laughing at demons is the most powerful method of banishing them. Negative thoughts and emotions only have power if you take them seriously - they don’t survive ridicule. This approach usually requires planning ahead so that during times of stress, when you are less able to think of the most constructive approach, you will see the humor in the situation. Poking fun at your demons is like getting an emotional vaccination against them. {The Transforming Demons exercise below is helpful for learning to laugh at your demons.}

Transform the thought
Transformation means using the energy of the thought to change it. Suppressing thoughts does not work well because they go underground, simmering away in the unconscious mind. Resisting them may make them stronger (similar to a teenager who is more likely to do something if the parents object). Transformation harnesses the energy of a thought by keeping it front and center and shifting it, like martial arts techniques that use the force of an opponent to defeat him. In essence, you channel the deeper motivating force behind a thought into an expression that will be more constructive.
     Another way to transform thoughts is to identify what any thought, mood or impulse is telling you about your deepest desires. Negativity often represents a twisted version of something that is basically good or neutral but poor thinking and habits make these deeper feelings become harmful. Finding the deeper need will support finding better, more appropriate ways to satisfy it and help to overcome addiction to hoarding. Insights about your deepest yearnings will not come from thinking, but from becoming calm and letting messages come from the depths of your being.

You can (actually, need to) use a mix-and-match approach, simultaneously applying several different strategies. Negative thoughts are poison, so strong medicine (i.e., intensive effort using multiple strategies) is needed as antidote for the toxins that they spread. The point is to do as much as is needed to make change possible in your life.

Always remember that NO THOUGHT HAS ANY MORE POWER OVER YOU THAN YOU GIVE IT. All thoughts are created by your brain and you can just as well create healthy thoughts as harmful ones. Taking back power over your mind may be difficult because of deeply entrenched thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. You cannot afford to let even the tiniest tinge of negativity go unchallenged. Consistency and persistence need to become some of your highest values in this work.

GOOD READING: I don’t normally recommend magazine articles, but a back issue of Discover Magazine has an article on OCD that those of you who struggle with this problem may find a great relief. “In Defense of Free Will” in the November 2013 issue offers hope and insight.


In “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, the students learn to overcome their fears by imagining the thing they fear most taking on outlandish and ridiculous forms. Ron imagined the spiders he feared trying to chase him on roller skates and falling flat on their faces; Neville imagined Professor Snape wearing his grandmother’s hat and clothes. The ensuing laughter then banishes the demon. Using the same principle, visualize the fears or other emotions that keep you hoarding in the form of a demon and give the demon a humorous twist.

Name Your Demon ________________________________________________________

Description ______________________________________________________________



Transform your demon with laughter ___________________________________________



Transform your demon by channeling its energy ___________________________________




Name Your Demon _______________________________________________________

Description _____________________________________________________________



Transform your demon with laughter __________________________________________



Transform your demon by channeling its energy __________________________________





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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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