I’m reminded constantly that the world is a scary place. That if I go one block this way I need to be careful, or that I need to pay attention to the weather because there’s a big storm headed my way, and if I’m going to travel I should definitely use Purell. Or that if I don’t pay my credit card bills I’ll be in debt; that if I don’t have kids by x date I may never; and if I do have kids, how will I afford them? Yes, it’s true. There’s a lot that’s scary about the world. The school shootings; Islamic State; unemployment; climate change, and I could go on.
With so much to worry about it’s no wonder the majority of us are battling anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health anxiety affects 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18 percent of the population.
It’s easy for us to start in on the worry web, creating one strand and the next, only to end up stuck in the middle. My web was woven tight, but after learning to believe in myself, accept uncertainty, and live in the present I began to break through.
Below are three ways we can help ourselves feel safer in the world:
Believe in Yourself
According to a National Science Foundation report we have about 1,000 thoughts an hour. Think about how many of these thoughts are fearful. Stories we tell ourselves again and again. We could get sick; lose our jobs; never get out of debt or be in a good relationship. These thoughts take over and keep us running the same track of worry, dilemma and concern. The more laps we take, the more this kind of self-talk makes us feel we’re incapable of handling what life throws our way. And the less we believe we can take care of ourselves, the more harmful the world becomes.
If we want to feel safe in the world we need to believe we can take care of ourselves when things get tough or unexpected situations occur. “Being grounded in one’s self” says New York City-based psychotherapist Susan Solomon, “leads to a feeling of safety. When we feel balanced, no one or thing has the power to rock our world.”
To feel calm and balanced, we want to alter the way we speak to ourselves about the world. A 2009 article in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise examined the effects of motivational self-talk on self-confidence, anxiety and task performance in young athletes. The result? Motivational self-talk can enhance self-confidence and reduce cognitive anxiety.
What is Motivational Self-Talk? Statements like “I can do it” or “I’m OK.” A statement that makes us feel better. A positive.
“Motivational self-talk is probably the best way to enhance one’s self-confidence.” says Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, associate professor at the University of Thessaly in Greece and one of the report’s authors. “When using self-talk as a strategy to improve performance or regulating a behavior, our research has shown that consistency and systematic use is the key to make your self-talk effective.”
The more we say “I can take care of myself” instead of “I’ll never be able to”; or “I can handle this” instead of “I can’t deal with this” the more our confidence increases and our worry decreases.
If we want to feel safe, we need to believe we can handle life’s ups and downs. To start, try increasing your motivational self-talk and decreasing the negative self-talk.
I used to hold myself back from expressing myself at work and in relationships because I was scared that what I wanted to happen wouldn’t. Maybe my relationship would end instead of become more intimate or I would get fired instead of get a promotion. What I didn’t know terrified me, kept me in a state of fearing what was out there. What I feared most wasn’t the uncertainty, as it turned out, but the loss of control I felt.
“The discomfort associated with groundlessness, with the fundamental ambiguity of being human,” writes American Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron in her book “Living Beautifully,” “comes from our attachment to wanting things to be a certain way.”
To feel safe in the world we need to drop our attachment to what’s truly an unknown outcome. Easier said than done, right?
Chodron writes that her first teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, said that “rather than being disheartened by the ambiguity, the uncertainty of life, what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? What if we said, ‘Yes, this is the way it is; this is what it means to be human,’ and decided to sit down and enjoy the ride?”
To relax into uncertainty, to invite it into our lives and make peace with it, we let ourselves feel scared, excited, nervous, tormented. We don’t ignore the feeling, or distract ourselves from it. Instead we allow the feeling in, name it without judgment, and by acknowledging the situation for what it is, we feel better.
If we resist what is uncertain our uncertainty grows, but if we accept it, letting go of our need to control what we can’t, we let go of the worry.
Think for a minute about when you feel unsafe. Or when you feel scared. Are you alone? What are you thinking about? For me, my thoughts go directly to hypothetical situations “What would happen if …” and most are future focused “What if I … .” Solomon says, “We end up putting way too much energy into the unknown. We enter a vortex of fear, anxiety and dread instead of paying attention to the present.”
By paying attention to the present we “discover the possibilities in each moment and make better choices, access creativity and feel more inspired, and experience the freedom and peace that are ever present,” writes Sarah McClean in her book “Soul Centered.” Being present lets us live our lives as they are happening now.
“If you can remember the present moment, you can be less subject to anxiety,” write Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston in their book “Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.” “Anxiety needs a future (and is often fueled by the past).”
If anxiety needs a future and depression, nostalgia or regret need the past, then for us to feel good and safe we need the present.
Becoming present can be as easy as slowing down our movements and paying attention to what we’re doing while we’re doing it, taking slow deep breaths, or saying to ourselves, I’m here; I’m safe in this moment. Another way to practice presence is through meditation. Focusing on the breath, the inhale and exhale, we anchor our mind. Thoughts come in and out, and if we find ourselves getting stuck in one, we notice it without judgment and let it go.
Noticing our thoughts and coming back to our breath again and again interrupts our compulsive thinking and trains us to focus on what we’re doing in the moment. We keep coming back to the present moment again and again.
Living moment-to-moment we see firsthand that, no matter what we have going on in our lives, the moment we’re in is OK.
We’ll never be able to completely erase the worry and anxiety that keep us from feeling safe, but the more we return to these practices, the more quickly we will be able to return to feeling secure faster.