Learn to Manage Anxiety By Retraining Your Mind

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As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That guy knew what he was talking about. In the context of the speech, Roosevelt was addressing concerns about the economy after the Great Depression, where people’s main concerns were getting a job, affording food and shelter, and what they would do if they got sick and didn’t have any money. These are all fears that apply in a way that is too-close-for-comfort relevant today. For those members of the population suffering from anxiety, it’s even worse, with the feeling that your own brain has turned against you, conspiring to defeat you and leave you feeling worthless.


Anxiety is a common thing today, and for those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or other anxiety disorders, it can be a pervasive aspect of your life. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depressions Association of America (AADA). This includes generalized anxiety, as well as social phobias, panic disorders, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Forty million adults are affected each year, equating to over 18 percent of the adult population.


While some people seek treatment for anxiety, many others do not. While anxiety is considered a highly treatable mental illness, only a little over 36 percent of anxiety sufferers seek treatment. Anxiety often accompanies other medical issues, from depression to migraines, which can compound the anxiety.


Anxiety and other mental disorders have carried a stigma for a long time, and as people work to lessen that stigma, it is important to look at some of the reasons people may not seek treatment. Some sufferers have sought treatment in the past, but it isn’t working anymore and they become discouraged or hopeless. Other people are embarrassed or feel that seeking help makes them weak. Recently, many celebrities have been speaking out about their anxiety disorders, such as Emma Stone, Chris Evans, and Jennifer Lawrence.




Most people who suffer from anxiety can tell you the symptoms without the help of a clinical description. The American Psychiatric Association lists symptoms that include feelings of excessive nervousness or anxiousness that are out of proportion to the situation or circumstance. Dr. Nakia Hamlett, a psychology professor at Connecticut College, describes symptoms of anxiety as, “a case of hyper-arousal, generally being ‘keyed up’ and experiencing physiological effects that signal the nervous system that there is serious danger afoot.” She also separates the ways to approach anxiety and depression by describing anxiety as a “high energy” problem compared to depression, which is generally “low energy.” Specific physical symptoms described by Dr. Hamlett include rapid heartbeat, sweating, shallow breathing or hyperventilating [what people generally associate with a panic attack]. “In general, anxiety becomes the norm and people find themselves increasingly fearful and possibly avoidant of anxiety-provoking people, places, or things.”


Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is twice as likely to affect women, affects 6.8 million people. The symptoms of GAD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, includes restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, chronic fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and worsening worry or fear over extended periods of time. Some of the other more common forms of anxiety are Panic Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Social Anxiety Disorder.


Managing Anxiety


For many people, these and other disorders can be chronic. It can make an anxiety sufferer start to wonder if they’re missing something. The key, however, is management. “Anxiety, as a sensation or ‘habit’ can be addictive,” according to Dr. Hamlett. What this means is that the nervous system becomes used to feeling anxious. To change that, the anxiety sufferer has to redirect the nervous system to calm it and create a new state of normal. Okay, so how do you do that?


This can be immensely difficult. According to Dr. Hamlett, “It takes practice, and constant redirection at first, to calm the nervous system into a new habitual state.” One reason this can be so difficult is that people have a tendency to “focus on thoughts that increase or worsen anxiety, so, as one is retraining the central nervous system, one must also relentlessly redirect attention. It can seem overwhelming, initially, having to practice calming strategies and redirecting thoughts hundreds of times a day.” However, Dr. Hamlett states that it is completely possible to retrain the mind and body. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life, both by David D. Burns are two books that can help you practice redirecting your thoughts.




So why do so many people fail to gain control of their anxiety? According to Dr. Hamlett, “Most people doubt they have the capacity to overcome chronic anxiety, but with persistent practice it is not only possible, but likely… The conditioning processes related to anxiety do lead to heightened sensitivity to anxiety-cues or triggers and these can become powerful associations that are hard to break.


Anxiety is based in that same idea Roosevelt spoke of in 1932, fear of fear, and with this comes the fear that even if one is able to stop their anxiety, it might come back. Unfortunately, that’s true – it might. The best thing to do is prepare yourself for that situation. How you react to any relapse is very important. Dr. Hamlett suggests treating yourself with compassion instead of beating yourself up about it.


Along with the worries about anxiety, many sufferers also have to deal with depression. According to Dr. Hamlett, depression in anxiety sufferers is often a result of feeling bad about being anxious. She observes that anxiety sufferers have a tendency to beat themselves up, often feeling “broken” or “deficient” because their anxiety gets the best of them despite their efforts otherwise.

Image Credit: Pexels/Oluremi Adebayo



CBD oil is much talked about as an anxiety treatment. It has a lot of anecdotal support, according to the AADA, though has not yet had enough clinical trials to be recommended, though dozens of clinical trials are currently in progress. Dr. Hamlett describes it as an effective way to reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety, leading to improved mood and a feeling of well-being, She advises strategies: “Getting out of your mind and into the present, exercise, distraction, and persistently making it a hard stop when the mind tries to go off track into worries or self-deprecating thoughts.”


Meditation is an extremely helpful tool in fighting and controlling anxiety. A Harvard study found mediation to be a useful in controlling generalized anxiety. As maintaining a feeling of well-being is the antidote to feeling bad, Dr. Hamlett has found meditation to be a useful tool: “I have turned my attention to mindfulness practices and thinking about other ways for helping individuals detach from the mind and not take every thought so personally. Easier said than done, I know, but well worth the practice.” Our modern environment is so over-stimulated that a meditation practice may be the key to feeling better and keeping anxiety at bay.


In addition to meditation, developing a mindfulness practice is also very conducive to keeping anxiety at bay. “Getting into nature, accepting the moment as it is, focusing on basic things like looking at the scenery, listening to the sounds around you, noticing colors, breathing, are all ways to be mindful in the moment, when meditation can be challenging or isn’t possible.”



  1. Retrain the nervous system by practicing redirecting negative or anxiety inducing thoughts.
  2. Develop a meditation practice.
  3. Work at being mindful during your daily activities.

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