Freeing Yourself from Anxiety

4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want


By Tamar Chansky

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Is worry wearing you out? Whether it’s losing sleep over a deadline, fretting about a relationship, or constantly thinking about what you “should have” done or said, anxiety makes life feel like a race from one overwhelming situation to the next.

Freeing Yourself from Anxiety reveals the real secret to reducing stress: not positive thinking, but possible thinking. In this breakthrough guide, Dr. Tamar Chansky shows you dozens of simple yet powerful strategies you can use at any time to transform your anxious thoughts, conquer perfectionism and procrastination, and improve the way your brain reacts to stress, even without medication.

For anyone suffering with an anxiety disorder or depression, or who simply wants to handle everyday challenges more optimally and successfully, Dr. Chansky’s innovative program will help you breathe easier. Get ready to feel calm, confident, more like yourself again—and free to create the life you want.




The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.


Justin is losing sleep over his job. Although the job is going well, he can’t turn off his whirring head. Finishing things provides no relief, because there’s always the next thing, another day, another disaster he fears he has to avert.

Lucia has a knot in her stomach that won’t let up. She worries about her children, even though they’re grown. With grandchildren now, she worries even more because something is always unsettled: Will they get bullied, will they get hurt, will they do well in school?

Gabby is facing chemotherapy. Her doctor describes her prognosis as very good, but when Gabby thinks about her cancer, she can’t stop worrying. She knows it’s not good for her health, but she just feels like she can’t cope.


Most of us are familiar with the telltale sounds of anxious and negative thinking. It’s fast, it’s first, it’s worst, but most important—it’s wrong. When the brain says, Think this! you know that these first thoughts are irrational and not healthy, much as you know that reaching for the apple is going to serve you far better than gorging on donuts. But once the anxious or negative story line starts, it’s hard to know where the Think that! is. You’re stressed, and you don’t know how to get from the disastrous story playing out in your head to the quite manageable reality that is your life.

Being less stressed is one important reason to learn how to reframe and downgrade the importance of these anxious thoughts. But there’s something bigger. In the very moment of confusion in which you need to pay careful attention to incoming data about whatever challenge you face, anxiety completely distracts you. Like being buzzed by a low-flying plane, suddenly you are attending to your worry instead of your life. That’s a problem.

So how do you get from catastrophe to clarity? The first step is to relabel. When you think, I’m a total screw up! The board is going to have me fired, relabel that thought. Relabeling means recognizing that those catastrophes are first thoughts, coming from an unreliable source in the mind, you tag them as such and demote their significance: It’s just Disaster Man grabbing the microphone again. This prevents you from wasting your time rehearsing and imagining what would happen if you really were going to be fired—something that deep down you probably don’t believe will happen. The second step is to get specific and narrow down the problem from I made a fool of myself at the board meeting to a realistic assessment of what actually occurred, such as I am having trouble with my PowerPoint presentations and need to ask for help. Rather than distracting yourself with the least reliable data, getting specific hones in on the trustworthy data that are actually there.

Once you’ve narrowed the problem, you need to broaden the solutions, or optimize—looking beyond your own perspectives to call in lifelines—real or imagined—from other trusted voices. Finally, once you’ve turned the problem and solutions around, you can mobilize and decide how to address the situation or move on: You’re going to rehearse your presentations with a colleague first, or observe colleagues’ presentations to see what is most effective. You’ve gone from being convinced you’re going to lose your job to finding ways to improve your performance in just four simple steps. Not only will you feel better by following these steps, but chances are you’re going to do better, too.

The good news is that once you learn these steps, they become second nature. You no longer have to approach challenges with dread, suffer sleepless nights, or nurse the knots out of an unhappy digestive tract. You have more energy, you feel happier and more like yourself, and you’re not going from one imagined overwhelming situation to the next—just barely catching your breath in between. You are writing the story. You are living your life the way you want.


If you’ve flipped ahead through the pages of the book, you’ve probably noticed that this book has pictures. In the three books that I’ve written for parents of anxious children, time after time, as much as they appreciate the words, they remember the pictures. They photocopy them, hang them on the fridge, and use them to explain concepts not just to their kids, but to adults like the teachers, nurses, coaches, and doctors who work with their children.

Pictures get more of your brain working on learning, and faster. As Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, offers, the left brain is for details, the right brain is about the big picture. When we are giving directions, do we say—drive exactly 2.34 miles and turn right, then another .47 miles and go left? No, we offer easily visible landmarks—turn right at the McDonald’s and left at the post office. Pictures also provide shortcuts to get the brain working on releasing us from those first anxious reactions to life, quickly revealing the hidden escape hatch to the predicament we are in. When we are upset, seeing ourselves as spinning on the Ferris wheel of worry, it suddenly clicks: We don’t need to keep spinning, we can step off that ride.

There is an additional and unique benefit to using pictures: They throw in some levity. When you’re already anxious, feeling like you have to learn something new and serious can be daunting. It can feel like more of what you’re already experiencing. Lightening things up can help you learn more calmly and quickly.

Improving your well-being can be approached with levity, and you can do it from the comfort of your own living room. For example, seeing your anxious predictions as worthy of the National Enquirer but not the New York Times flips a switch in your mind. You can then spend far less time on the unnecessary worry missions and damaging nosedives in self-confidence and far more time tackling and mastering the very challenges that set off anxious thinking in the first place.

Anxiety and depression are serious mental health concerns, costing $46 billion a year in treatment and lost time at work, but they are preventable and treatable. The most effective approach is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is based on the idea that changing how you handle your thoughts changes how you think and feel and what you do. Decades of research and hundreds of studies have proven that CBT is a highly effective, empirically supported treatment for anxiety-related conditions. But there is no requirement that these techniques be dry or tedious. They will be far more successful when they are natural, accessible, and even entertaining. That helps us have a positive association with the strategy, and most important, helps us remember it.


Whether you are in college, in midlife, or approaching retirement, this book is for you. All of us experience moments dominated by worry or pessimism. Whether you are struggling to climb out of anxiety or depression, stave them off, or simply optimize your effectiveness in life by minimizing the impact and fallout of uncertainties and fears, you want to feel better. This book is for you, if you:

•  Have an anxiety disorder

•  Feel stressed with day-to-day situations

•  Want to avoid treating your anxiety with medication

•  Are on medication for anxiety or depression, but want to get more relief

•  Get disappointed easily and can’t shake it

•  Are at a transition point in your life

•  Have worry that feels uncontrollable

•  Want to learn how to not get so upset by the ups and downs of life

Whether you are tackling the things you want or managing the unexpected things in life that you didn’t sign up for—worry just gets in the way.

This book will give you clear steps to make better use of your time and better decisions in your life, and enjoy the results more. Remembering that catastrophe is usually a no-show, you can instead refocus your energies on learning the right things from the challenges you encounter. You will find here the precise steps you can use to successfully overcome automatic anxious and negative thoughts and put them in their proper place. Rather than simply thinking positively, you will learn to relabel and devalue the significance of your undermining thoughts as unreliable; then you’ll identify solutions and mobilize resources to remedy them.


Some of you may be thinking—This sounds great, but it’s not for me, I’ve been like this for too long, I can’t change. The fact is that neuroscience, and specifically the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity, is documenting the great capacity of the brain to change or rewire connections, even those that are long-standing. This offers hard evidence that each one of us is entirely capable of learning new connections and changing the paths that our minds take. In time, perspective will come without having to actively seek it out. And it’s never too late. As a Chinese proverb suggests, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the next best time is now.”

When did you last say, “Thank goodness I wasted, I mean, spent the last three hours freaking out about that job interview. The worry was so helpful and I feel much better now”? Anxious and negative thinking is not how you solve problems. That is the obstacle that you need to navigate around so that you can think clearly to solve problems. Although we’d all like to dump our worries and speed away fast, we may have moments in which we believe we need to worry and think that a situation warrants it. Think again. Serious situations warrant clear thinking, not spinning around with worry. The more you remember ahead of time the harried, frantic, desperate place that worry takes you, the more you will choose to save yourself an unpleasant and unnecessary trip. Why not arrive refreshed before an important meeting, doctor’s appointment, or blind date rather than completely flattened?


Throughout each chapter you’ll find quick exercises entitled “Try This” that summarize the main points of the chapter for you. At the end of each chapter comes a suggestion called “You and Beyond.” An interesting thing starts to happen when you work on freeing yourself from anxiety and negative thinking. It spills over in positive ways to the people around you. You respond more patiently and compassionately to others’ anxious and negative moments because you understand them from the inside out. You start to bring out the best in others, by not latching on to the negative. As you see unexpected possibilities popping up in the corner of your mind’s eye, you feel lighter and discover those untapped resources in others around you. If you intentionally apply these strategies to yourself and to the people around you, and they begin to feel less stressed, there will be less worry and more happiness all around. Think of this as a community cleanup effort—for your family, your co-workers, your classmates, the planet.


Part I, “Getting to Know Your Mind and How to Change It,” explains the backstory on anxious and negative thinking, why the brain seems wired against you, how to handle doubt and uncertainty, and what choices we have besides anxious thoughts.

Part II, “The Four Steps: The Master Plan for Overcoming Anxious Thinking to Create the Life You Want,” explains four steps for overcoming the hurdles created by distorted thoughts. It presents a powerful, practical plan for shrinking the worry moment back to its appropriate size, honing in on the real problem, and what we need to expand the universe of solutions and take action. This section ends with a quick look at the anxiety disorders and guidelines for knowing when you may benefit from professional help.

Part III, “Additional Tools to Free Yourself,” examines the nuts and bolts of how negative emotions work, how to identify your strengths and how to rein in your expectations to save yourself from unnecessary disappointment later. It also outlines the power of getting outside yourself to tap into empathy and gratitude.

Part IV, “Shortcuts: How to Find Your Way Through the Detours of Life,” test-drives the steps in the context of the real-life bumps in the road and the natural reactions you build in response, such as jealousy, anger, hurt, disappointment, and shame. Although these feelings are natural first reactions, they are the gateway to anxiety and negative thinking, boxing you in or controlling you with fears. We also look at the cages you may create for yourself—procrastination, perfectionism, difficulty with criticism—and see how to work your way out of patterns that have become automatic.


Rather than feeling like you have to dodge and hide from life’s inevitable obstacles, you can use this book to equip yourself to face them head on. You will find simple, everyday exercises that you can do with much less effort than it takes to be dragged around by an anxious or negative spin. As you work with the strategies in this book, you’ll find that detours will be temporary and your recovery time faster. You can work hard at this, but this book is about how to work on it easily. With small changes that you incorporate often, you’ll soon find that the new pathways become second nature to you, as natural as worrying used to be. So, come as you are, whether you are deep in these patterns or only an occasional visitor, and find the skills to create a better life—the life you want to lead.


While it is usually a good idea to follow your Getting to Know Your Mind and How to Change It

While it is usually a good idea to follow your instincts or feelings, this is the wrong approach when you’re anxious. You have to do the opposite of your instincts. That’s because anxiety is paradoxical. The more you try to defend yourself, the more frightened you become.


What are typically the first two words out of a well-meaning friend or loved one’s mouth when you are upset? “Don’t worry.” If only it were so simple. With catastrophic pictures racing through your mind, you’re not exactly going to turn out the lights, go to bed, and think, Right, this can wait till tomorrow. On the contrary, you may get caught up worrying that there’s something wrong with you simply because you’re worrying, that if you were more competent you wouldn’t be worrying about this or the twenty other things on your list. It takes very little for worry to spiral out of control, taking your confidence and rationality with it.

In these first few chapters you’ll learn how your mind works, exactly why the brain works you up over things, and how you can retrain it to only warn you about the things that really matter. In Chapter 1, we’ll learn that though the brain is wired to detect threat first and safety much later, there are important things that you can do to shorten the gap between the two. So, as much as it is an instinct to worry, you’ll learn that you have another instinct as well, maybe one you didn’t know you were allowed to have: an instinct to buffer yourself from unnecessary worry. That is the instinct that you will strengthen by reading this book.

Worry rushes in where there is uncertainty. And whether it’s Will my child be okay at school today, will my mother’s surgery go well, or will my boss like my proposal, uncertainty is part of life. But the way anxiety tells the story, the uncertainty always leads to what can go wrong. We approach most things in life with what we could call calculated uncertainty. It’s not that we have no idea what’s going to happen, we just don’t know exactly what will happen. Worry tempts us because we don’t like to be caught off guard. We are afraid to let go of rehearsing for all the catastrophes that could occur. It’s a discipline to resist getting roped into worry, but in Chapter 2 we’ll learn how to shrink back the risk that we perceive to its appropriate size, which will allow us to be better prepared for the actual situations we face.

Thinking positively is another standard antidote that we may try when we are anxious. We’ll see in Chapter 3 that although positive experiences are to be cherished, positive thinking is not the exit route out of worry, and forcing ourselves in that direction may backfire. When we are stuck with negative thinking, we feel out of options, so to exit out of that we need to be reminded of all the options we do have. Rather than telling yourself to “think positive,” you can remind yourself to “think possible.”

Chapter 1


Our genetic preparation to learn about ancestral dangers can get us into trouble, as when it causes us to develop fears of things that are not particularly dangerous in our world.


Chapter 2


My life has been a series of tragedies, none of which actually happened.



Worry is the commentary that happens with eyes closed, outside the door. Your internal voice of reason gets automatically turned on—like a refrigerator light—when you open the door to see what’s really inside.

In between shrinking the risk and being willing to approach the situation, you might need to do a few things to calm your body down. First, don’t let your fear of the unknown keep you from doing the essential work of exploring and evaluating the things you do know. If you can keep the door open and keep looking at the probabilities and the facts, chances are you’ll find that the news is better than you think. In any case, you want to be sure that if there’s something you need to plan for, get more information about, or problem solve, worry won’t deprive you of that opportunity.

Many of us have moments where we spin with anxiety, but when pressed to pinpoint what we are afraid of, we don’t know. Sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us to figure it out, to think that there could be another way of responding to that situation besides worrying. This is the closed door of anxiety.


We are very good consumers. We research online, aren’t easily taken in by sales pitches, we do the side-by-side comparisons of prices and products. Put your worry through the same consumer test. Take a situation that you are feeling uneasy about, list your worst fears on one side of the page. Now draw a vertical line down the middle of the page, and on the other side write what you truly believe will happen. Seeing is believing.


Correcting Your Cognition

The opposite of uncertainty and risk is not certainty, but simply information. In this section we look at the special effects that worry uses to magnify your fears. Once you better understand the mechanisms behind these tricks, you can recognize them and avoid falling under their spell.

Strategy #1: Separate Facts from Feelings

I’m afraid to get on that plane, what if it crashes? I can’t take that driver’s test, what if I don’t pass? The more upset you get, the more convinced you feel that it makes sense to be afraid. When we think of something tragic or stressful, we’re going to feel upset. But don’t take that feeling as a sign of the increased likelihood of that tragic event happening. Both facts and feelings are important, but you want to base your decisions and assessments on the facts, which are stable, rather than on emotions, which are variable.

It helps to have a place to express those intense feelings, but also to see them as distinct from what even you yourself believe to be true. No matter how strong the feelings are, they don’t change the facts. As you begin to act on the facts, notice how the feelings quickly dissolve. Remember, there are two distinct versions of the story. Don’t confuse them.

Worst Case:
What If?

Most Likely Outcome: What Is?

Additional Ideas:
What Else

I lose my job?

No one is talking about layoffs now.

We are in a good position to ride this out.

We have to relocate?

My projects are going well.

They will probably avoid layoffs at all costs.

I can’t find a job?

I do have seniority;
I bring a lot of business to the firm.

Our industry has been relatively unaffected by the poor economy.

Notice how your stress level changes depending on which scenario you are reading. Thoughts manipulate feelings. Just because you can think of bad things happening doesn’t mean that they will occur. Stick with the facts—don’t commit time to the fiction.

Strategy #2: Recognize the Power of Suggestion

When I explain this phenomenon to patients in my home office, which has a high vaulted ceiling, I say, “Imagine that I was afraid that the ceiling was going to fall in.” Patients always look up. I point out that until I had mentioned the ceiling, no one was worrying about it, and nobody will be thinking about it a few minutes from now, because it is a non-issue. But in assessing risk, if we focused on just that split second of fear as a barometer, we would have assessed it as high. Calculating absolute risk based on our emotional reactions is volatile and unreliable.


Ask yourself:

• What am I most afraid of about this?

• How much do I really believe that will happen?

• What do I think is the most likely thing to happen?

• What is the most unlikely thing to occur?

• What could I do if that happened?

Tell yourself:

• Ideas can sound frightening, but that doesn’t make them true.

• Just because I’m afraid and can picture something doesn’t make it more likely.

• The degree of how afraid I feel isn’t a good measurement of the actual risk in the situation. My anxious thoughts are manipulating my feelings.

• If I stick with what I really believe is most likely to happen, then I can effectively plan how to handle the likely scenario.

The power of suggestion is the temporary manipulation of your fears, in reaction to a mention of something frightening. If, for example, someone mentions cancer, heart attacks, or accidents, we imagine that happening to us and we may even react physically, by feeling light-headed or having our heart rate speed up. Or consider what happens when someone mentions a stomach bug and we feel suddenly queasy or mentions the dreaded lice and we feel an unbearable itching all over our scalp. But when you learn to expect the temporary reaction, you won’t overthink it and you won’t overvalue it. You’ll come to realize that it’s a natural reaction to the mention of something scary, just like you get scared watching a horror movie. If you stamp it as the power of suggestion, the fear will more quickly loosen its grip.


Take a situation that you are worried about. Ask yourself:

• How nervous am I that I will completely mess up the presentation?

• How much of me truly believes that I will mess up the presentation?

• What do I really believe will happen?

• You might feel 100 percent frightened about something, but only 5 percent of you believes that it will truly happen. Base your “take away message” on the facts and not the feelings.

Getting the Body on Board


On Sale
Jan 31, 2012
Page Count
304 pages

Tamar Chansky

About the Author

Psychologist Tamar Chansky, PhD, is the founder and director of the Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety and the author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. She lives in Philadelphia.

Learn more about this author