I’m afraid of more things than I should be.
I’m afraid of walking on ice, riding my bike downhill, eating sweet and savory foods in the same bite—pizza with pineapple . . . terrifying. I’m afraid the UPS guy will catch me without a bra on when he delivers my Amazon packages. I’m afraid of astronomy—the vastness of the universe, and all the math it takes to figure it out, leaves me anxious and confused, wanting to kick inanimate objects. I’m afraid of having to unexpectedly talk to my neighbors. Please don’t just stop by to say hello. I will need a cold compress to recover.
And at the same time, when the shit hits the fan, I’m clearly the kinda girl you want on your cleanup crew. I’ve had some version of an emergency “go bag” packed and ready since I was five years old. Detailed contingency plans are my love language. Trying to imagine and plan for the unimaginable helps me feel safe—or, at the very least, productive.
Think about it. Even if you can’t do a darn thing about the chaos du jour that triggers your anxiety, you can still worry about it—which at least feels like you’re doing something.
I used to think that anxiety just came naturally to me.
You know how some people are born with amazing voices or athletic prowess? Well, I was born to worry.
Worry is Natural (and, Unfortunately, Inescapable)
We humans are extremely creative creatures. Our imaginations have allowed us to invent microscopes to peer into the smallest cells of our bodies, and rocket ships that hurtle us into the realm of the stars. But our imaginations can also freak us the fuck out.
Think about it: is there anything scarier than all the awful stories we tell ourselves?
We’re so damn good at devising the most frightening tales. Yet most of us have no desire to be Stephen King, channeling our darkest thoughts into best-selling horror novels. Instead, we do our best to bury our paranoid thoughts in the boneyard of our psyche and desperately try to become “fearless,” an impossible task that goes against our very DNA.
The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety
People often confuse fear and anxiety because they can feel the same way in our bodies—the heart pounding, the sweaty palms, the racing thoughts. And while they’re both designed to keep us safe, they’re actually different.
Fear is automatic.
It’s designed to protect us from tangible and immediate threats. Fear signals a clear and present danger, prompting us to take instant action—pronto. See tiger. Run. Survive. Voilà! Fear has done its job. It comes on in a burst and has a beginning, middle, and end.
Though we can be afraid of something from the past or future—like getting into a car accident again or losing another job—more often than not, we confuse that kind of fear with anxiety. In fact, many of us who identify as being fearful are probably more anxious than we fully understand. That was certainly the case for me when I started teasing out these complicated emotions.
Anxiety is a nervousness, unease, or worry over things that may or may not happen in the future.
It’s the anticipation of a threat, rather than the threat itself. It’s that feeling of dread that comes over us when we think about a potential hazard, especially when we turn it over and over again in our minds.
- If I speak up to my brother, like I know I must, he’s going to decimate me.
- If I don’t get that flight out before the hurricane hits, I’m going to get stuck in Weather Channel hell.
- If I quit my fancy but unsatisfying job, I’ll never find anything else and wind up broke and hungry.
And while anxiety can be less intense than fear, it tends to last much longer. That’s because anxiety gets triggered by uncertainty—the very nature of life.
If fear’s job is to identify a threat and quickly take action, anxiety’s job is to run worst-case scenarios and gauge what could happen, in order to come up with a plan and protect ourselves. Anxiety keeps us vigilant so we can pay attention, strategize, and stay on top of things.
Our Worries Can be Both Helpful and Hurtful
Remember, all of our emotions serve a purpose. We can thank fear for helping us swerve out of the way of an oncoming car, or jump when we see a snake slithering toward us. Fear makes us call 911 when our house is on fire.
We can applaud anxiety for forcing us to finally get that persistent pain checked out. Anxiety alerts us to choose another street to walk down late at night. It tells us to yell “not friendly” to the oblivious dog owner whose bouncy, untethered pooch charges toward our leashed (and salivating) pit bull. There’s a reason her nickname is “Rumbles.”
But when left unchecked, anxiety can warp into something very harmful—keeping us in a state of constant fight-or-flight, sending our inflammation through the roof, and our energy and immunity into the toilet.
These last few years, anxiety has collectively skyrocketed. Today, more than 40 million people suffer from full-blown anxiety disorders in the U.S. alone. Pre-pandemic the United Nations estimated that nearly 1 billion people worldwide were struggling with a mental health condition. Since then, the pandemic has caused a 25 to 27 percent increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression. According to a recent Gallup poll, worry, stress, fear, anger, and sadness have been on the rise globally for the past decade and reached record highs in 2021.
Something’s got to give, or our bodies will.
As a 20-year veteran of co-existing with Stage IV cancer (and a lifelong prodigy at worry), I’m no stranger to the mental marathon of managing a long-term source of anxiety in our lives. With the way our culture lionizes bravery, it’s no wonder that most of us feel under-equipped to soothe our stress or worry. Tending to the messy emotions that come with tough times is a major focus in my new book (that comes out this week—eek!!!!). You can order your copy (and score a FREE ticket to my book release event) here or by hitting the button below. In the meantime, I’ll share a few ways you can unwind your long-term worries.
Three Ways to Unwind Long-Term Worry
1. Laugh a Little
Long-term stress can do weird shit to your noggin. Whether yours stems from work, financial struggles, worry over a sick loved one, or something else, long-term uncertainty is a masterclass in learning to coexist with both rational and irrational fear. In the early days of managing my cancer diagnosis, I really struggled with this. Every weird ache, gas pain, or sneeze could send me into a hysterical tailspin.
Anne Lamott basically summed up my experience when she wrote, “My mind is a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.”
One minute I was centered, calm, and present. Feeling my butt on the chair. Paying attention to my breathing. Noticing my peaceful surroundings—a cardinal at my birdfeeder. The next minute I’d be planning the guest list for my funeral.
What kind of food would be served? Should there be a DJ? No. Not classy enough. Who should get my good jewelry? My mom and goddaughter. Will my hubby, Brian, remember to feed our dogs? Brian is so lonely now. I love Brian. Maybe he should start dating again? But not someone younger and prettier than me. Oh my God, Brian is dating a hot 20-year-old! I hate Brian.
If I had enough awareness to recognize what my brain was actually doing and why, I’d meet my fear and anxiety with compassion (and a hearty chuckle). But more often than not, my negative fantasies would hold my brain hostage, and the next time Brian asked me if I knew where his glasses were, I’d tell him to consult his child bride.
In the years since, I’ve learned to stop judging those doom loops when they occur in my mind. Instead, I try to become aware of them, accept them as a natural way that my mind is trying to safeguard my future, and then bid them adieu. I sometimes even cook up a funny name for the scary movie playing in my mind. Laughter is a wonderful way to disarm those doom loops.
2. Remind Yourself That It Will Be Okay
This next one was handed to me by my Dad in one of the hardest and most beautiful moments of my life so far. Days before my dad “got on the bus”—his euphemism for dying—I peeked into his bedroom. Did he need another blanket or some ice chips? Were the lights too bright? Was there anything I could do to make him more comfortable?
That’s when I overheard him steadying and calming himself with a mantra. His voice was reduced to a raspy, faint whisper, but his words held the power to stick with me forever.
“It will be OK. I will be OK. It will be OK.”
Eyes closed. Hands gently folded on his heart. Deep breaths.
“It will be OK. I will be OK. It will be OK.”
Witnessing him trying to comfort himself stopped me in my tracks. Here he was, in the twilight of his life, finding the strength to recognize his fear and comfort himself through it.
How much more can we, in the face of life’s normal stress, summon the strength to breathe deep, place a hand on our hearts, and remind ourselves that we will be OK? Do that now if you need to, my friend. There’s deep healing inside that simple practice.
3. Ask the Question You’re Avoiding
One of the good things anxiety does in our lives is ask the hard questions. It points our attention to the areas where we feel more fear and dread than we do love and peace. Sometimes that tension is something we can’t control and have to bear (as with a long-term illness). But other times, it’s an invitation to make a change (like leaving a job or relationship that’s run its course).
This is another big piece of wisdom I learned from my Dad. He’d always encourage me to ask myself the candid question I often didn’t want to even think about: Have I reached the point of diminishing returns?
If the answer was yes—meaning the blood, sweat, and frustration weren’t remotely paying off—he’d follow up with another classic: “Go where the sun shines the hottest.” To me, this means directing my attention to where the energy, action, and opportunity is—as opposed to just going through the motions, eking out crumbs out of obligation.
Dad’s wisdom is a potent reminder: Don’t stay stuck in old, ineffectual rhythms because they feel safe. Trust that what’s meant for you doesn’t require you to drain your life force to experience success or fulfillment.
LET YOUR FEAR & ANXIETY INFORM YOU—BUT NOT OWN YOU
I hope these practices help you find peace if long-term worry has been making a meal of you lately. While not easy to manage, our feelings of fear and anxiety can have use. They’re hardwired into our genetic code for a reason. Like all of our emotions, they’re just information. Signals from our body trying to protect us.
The aim is to listen to them with love—to have the courage to receive the messages our fear and anxiety are trying to send us and choose an intentional next step. Sometimes that will be a big, brave shift. And at other times, it will be a deep breath, and a choice to make peace with the parts of life we can’t control. Whichever path you’re walking today, know that I’m so proud of you. Being awake to your own life and heart… that’s brave.
All my love,