For so many of us when we start having anxious thoughts, we get self-critical. We berate ourselves for our worries, sweaty palms and all-over shakiness.
We call ourselves names. We become ashamed and embarrassed.
What is wrong with you? You’re an idiot for getting anxious over something so small!
When we’re distressed, our inner critic starts roaring, which only heightens our anxiety and perpetuates its intensity and severity.
A more helpful response — both to anxiety and life in general — is self-compassion. Self-compassion includes speaking kindly to ourselves, being accepting, being honest with ourselves, acknowledging and validating our feelings and supporting ourselves to find helpful solutions.
In his book The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Worry, Panic and Fear psychologist Dennis D. Tirch, Ph.D, shares many valuable tools, tips and techniques around self-compassion and mindfulness.
Here are three strategies from his book for responding to anxious thoughts with compassion.
1. Pretend you’re talking to your best friend.
According to Tirch, we tend to apply harsher standards to ourselves that we do to others. That’s why pretending like you’re supporting your best friend (or really any loved one) can help.
First, he suggests asking yourself what’s going through your mind right now. In a sentence or two try to capture your thoughts.
For instance, you might be thinking: What if I lose my job? What if I don’t meet my deadline? What if I have a panic attack? What if I can’t sleep?
Next ask yourself: “What would I say to a good friend who was faced with this same situation?”
If your best friend was stuck in traffic and worried about being late, Tirch writes that you might say:
“That kind of situation can be so frustrating. As much as you can, remember that the traffic is not your fault and is out of your control. You’re probably one of hundreds of people stuck on the same route. If you can, let yourself off the hook on this, and just call your office to let them know you’re stuck.”
2. Assess the benefits and costs of your thoughts.
Take out a piece of paper. Again, ask yourself what’s going through your mind right now. Then consider: “What are the advantages and the disadvantages of buying into this thought?”
On your piece of paper, draw a vertical line down the center. At the top of one side, write “Benefits.” At the top of the other, write “Costs.”
After you write down the costs and benefits, Tirch suggests asking these questions: “Do the costs of buying into this thought outweigh the benefits? Does it help me to buy into this thought? If I did believe this, how would I behave? Do I want to hand my behavior, and my life, over to this kind of thinking?”
Consider if the thought will lead to self-compassionate behavior. If you decide it’s more costly to buy into this thought, focus on being compassionate and accepting and see the thought for what it really is: “an event in the mind.”
Then try to focus on a “compassionate alternative thought that will help you behave in a compassionate, effective and kind way.”
3. Gain some distance from your thoughts.
Imagine you’re in a beautiful theater, sitting in the balcony. You’re watching a play. After some time, the protagonist is acting out feeling distressed. You’ve been watching the play for a while so you really feel for him or her.
As Tirch writes, “…you’ve developed empathy, compassion and warm feelings for this character. Imagine now, though, that the character you’re watching is actually you. The play you’re seeing is a play about exactly the same situation you find yourself in right now.”
Then consider: “How might you respond to the negative, anxiety-based thinking that you sometimes notice within you, in this compassionate view from the balcony?”
Tirch points out that anxiety isn’t your fault. There are many factors that contribute to your anxiety, which you didn’t choose, such as your genetics, your history and the situation you’re in.
However, fortunately, we can learn to respond to our anxiety in accepting, compassionate ways. The above tips may help you start.