Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want

by Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.

2020 has been a mentally-draining year. In this 287-page book, psychologist Tamar Chansky explains why our minds get overwhelmed with worry and she offers advice on how to deal with it. Here are some highlights.

Anxiety is “the first-reaction of a sensitive system that is wired to keep us alert to danger and protected from harm… But today, with our best interests in mind, anxiety sometimes makes mistakes, overshooting… grabbing your attention from what you need to focus on and insisting that you instead grapple with worst-case scenarios.” 

Dr. Chansky presents four steps for reining in anxiety: relabeling, getting specific, optimizing, and mobilizing.

  1. RELABEL. “By relabeling your worst thoughts as simply your first thoughts, the knee-jerk things we say to ourselves without thinking, you can save yourself the misery of the thousand recalculations of your self-worth, the speculations of doom and gloom, the stripping of your confidence… Relabeling is the caller ID. It puts the right tag on the thought, which instantly reduces the importance of the message, and that in turn decelerates the nervous system. We’re all much smarter than our first thoughts.”
  2. GET SPECIFIC. “When you hang in there and get specific to identify the right information about what just happened, the most useful information, you find the part you can actually do something about.”
  3. OPTIMIZE, RETHINK WHAT’S POSSIBLE, BROADEN YOUR CHOICES. “Worrying means getting trapped in one way of looking at a situation. Having one unreachable way of solving a problem depletes you, wastes your energy, and is rarely of any value. In contrast, optimizing is all about flexibility. Fear narrows our perspective; it literally narrows our field of vision. Taking the time to look at different interpretations, information, and ideas that exist just outside the quandary we perceive is boxing us in allows us to stretch outside the box.”
  4. MOBILIZE. “Remember that motivation follows behavior, not the reverse. Do one thing, and when you see yourself moving, you’ll feel motivated and capable of doing more… Finding your first steps ushers you on your way… Movement often starts, humbly, with a change of scenery to break out of the hold the moment has on you. The second step of mobilizing occurs when you shift into problem solving mode… Here, the unit of change is a series of small steps that won’t overwhelm or perplex you. There is a third aspect of mobilizing that comes from the realization that sometimes you can’t change a situation. But there is still an action to take—acceptance.”

“We get dragged around by our distress about our distress… The fears and beliefs make whatever was underneath seem so much worse… Feelings get there first, leave last. Emotions arrive first and call the shots, causing you to react before you even know why… The brain is wired to feel before knowing… You need to trust the notion that although reason may come late to the party, it always shows up.”

POSITIVE, NEGATIVE, NEUTRAL THINKING. “The real secret to mental health and well-being isn’t to repeat positive mantras daily; it is actually to reduce the negative thoughts… Remember if you’re having trouble getting out of the negative—go through neutral first.”

“Whenever your mind starts commenting unhelpfully – What if you are late? What if people don’t like what you’re doing? … you can summon your neutral thinking, which reminds you to not get ahead of yourself, just focus on what you are doing now, and trust that if a challenge should arise, you have options about how to handle it once you are actually faced with the situation. The opposite of negative thinking isn’t positive thinking; it’s simply possible thinking.”

SHOW THE SEAMS. “First, sharing a vulnerability or mistake offers a window into someone, and a human connection and the beginning of trust. Second, it also demystifies the process of success and shows it is safe to try something without knowing exactly how it will work out because taking risks is how you grow. And finally, the more we are all willing to show our seams, the more we won’t waste so much precious energy trying to pretend that everything’s perfect in our lives.”

EXPECTATIONS. “Allow for some give in your expectations… Expectations need wiggle room, so that you can manage more resiliently when things don’t go as planned… If you set unrealistic expectations, you build a stress machine… The person didn’t fail, the goal was a miscalculation. Establishing small goals that we meet more quickly is how we generate momentum… As you see yourself take those steps, you are propelled forward to bigger goals.”

DISAPPOINTMENT. “Dalai Lama’s wisdom articulates: ‘Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.’”

SELF-FOCUS. “It will come as no surprise to those of us who have spent time under the vice grip of our own scrutiny…. Excessive self-focused attention is part of a vicious cycle in anxiety and depression… Given the physical toll that worrying takes, it’s not like all that attention on ourselves does us any good in tending to our needs, either. In fact, knowing how to zoom out from the auto close-up is so important to mental health that one measure researchers use to gauge successful treatment for anxiety and depression is by a decrease in self-focused attention.”

SHAME. “Whether it is a serious situation or a more felt humiliation, you’ve decided that you are unacceptable and that’s final. Hiding cuts you off from finding, exploring, and analyzing, the very processes that could break down shame and release you from its grip.”

PROCRASTINATION. “Diversions are not diverting when you know you are hiding from something… Once you find the on-ramp to any project, that, too, helps fix the procrastination problem… Rather than waste time locked into a staring contest with the one thing that you can’t do right now, do what you can… Give yourself permission to do things out of order.” Another tip is to leave a project unfinished at the end of the day. “Leaving something undone can give you some momentum and pings the brain’s neural satisfaction center at the beginning of your next work session… It’s strategically creating an on-ramp to get right back in your groove.”

CRITICISM. “The secret to good criticism is to characterize it not as a mistake but just something someone hasn’t yet learned. Let’s help each other out compassionately and share knowledge rather than judge the lack of knowledge as a weakness. What’s the best way to share feedback? Think of how you would say it to someone from another culture who you wouldn’t assume should or would know how things are done around here.”

“Expect anxiety, and don’t be afraid when it weighs in first on the moments that make up our lives, but don’t stop there. Remember, you are the protagonist in your life story, and you get to decide who narrates.”

Chansky, Tamar E. Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2012. Buy from

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