As an anxiety specialist, clients often ask me what to do when they’re stuck in worry. Although I strive to help clients discover what works for them through metaphors and experiential exercises, sometimes they want concrete, practice advice. In those instances, here’s what I tell them:
1. Ask the client to notice where they feel anxiety in the body.
When we experience anxiety, it shows up somewhere in our bodies. Common places include tightness in our chests, knots in our stomach, and/or tension in our neck and shoulders.
2. When clients notice they’re caught up in worry, teach them to gently redirect their attention to a bodily sensation.
For me, I experience anxiety in my chest. When I notice worry, I gently bring my attention to the tightness in my chest. This serves a few purposes. One, it provides a neutral anchor for my attention. I’m being present with my anxiety, but in a slightly decontextualized way by letting go of thoughts. Two, getting in touch with our bodies can be grounding.
3. Repeat step two as often as necessary until they’re able to let go of worry.
It’s common to keep getting caught up in thinking. Each time clients notice they’re caught up worrying again, have them gently bring their attention back to a bodily sensation. It’s like pumping the brakes on a runaway car. Keep gently pressing the brakes until your thoughts stop pulling your attention away. This could take some time, but eventually, thoughts should start to feel less sticky.
Brian L. Thompson, PhD, is a licensed psychologist; and director of the anxiety clinic at the Portland Psychotherapy in Portland, OR. He specializes in working with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, and has published research in these areas.