Anxiety Tends to Snowball. Try this Counseling Hack for Less Anxiety

Did you know that anxiety breeds more anxiety? I’ll bet if you suffer from anxiety, you already know that. You start out worrying about one thing, and the next thing you know, your mind is chewing away at everything you’ve worried about that day—or that week, month, year, or just about ever.

Or, maybe it starts with the physical feelings of anxiety, and you’re not even sure where they came from. But, now your mind starts throwing stressful reasons for your anxiety at you from every direction.

The trouble is, once anxious thoughts snowball into scores of worries, it gets very hard to know what to do to ease that anxiety. You need a way to break it down into manageable chunks so that you can use some tools to calm yourself down.

If snowballing, compounded anxiety sounds familiar, try this three step counseling hack for less anxiety and more clarity.


Borrow a Tool from Couples Counseling to Handle Anxiety Differently

When a conversation starts with criticism, contempt, or accusation, it is not likely to end well. According to a six year study of 124 couples (by Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute for Couples Counseling), the first three minutes of a difficult conversation are key to both the outcome of that discussion, and marital success as the years unfold.

But, what about the way we talk to ourselves as individuals? When you are experiencing anxiety, do you beat yourself up, say self-critical things, overreact because the problems seem so big, or put yourself down for how you feel or for your reactions? And, does that help you calm down? Of course not!

Just as couples can learn to have more effective conversations by starting them differently, you can also be more effective with yourself by creating healthier self-conversations about your worries.

So, borrow this counseling hack that was designed for use in discussion with others to reduce interpersonal defensiveness, blaming, and shaming—but apply it to your own thought process. It’s called the Gentle Start Up.


Try The Gentle Start-Up: a Couples Counseling Hack that Works Well for Individuals, Too!

It can be hard to sort out the tangled ball of emotions, thoughts, and possible actions we might take when we’re stressed, sad, or anxious. However, until we are clear on what’s really going on with ourselves, it is pretty hard to know what we need in upsetting circumstances.

Just as we need to sort through our emotions and needs before a couples conversation is going to be very effective, we need to do that for our own encounters with stress, too. If we don’t, we react and are at risk for hurting those around us, making poor decisions for ourselves, or generally freaking out (to use a clinical term).

The following three questions are part of what the Gottman’s call The Gentle Start-Up for couples. But, the questions are very clarifying for individuals, too.


Ask yourself three questions: “What am I feeling? What’s it really about? And, what do I need?”


What are you feeling?

Yep, here it is. This is a counseling blog, so we’re going to talk about feelings—as in, emotions. This can be a little trickier than we realize when we’re upset. “Wait a minute,” you say! “I’m upset, how hard is that to figure out?!” Well, what kind of upset are you?

Depending on who’s research you look at, there are somewhere between five and 10 main emotions. I call them “umbrella emotions” because the ways we really describe how we feel are all the words that fall under these overarching five:

Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Shame. For example:

    Joyful (ecstatic, happy, excited, glad, peaceful, pleased, content, grateful, etc.)

    Angry (enraged, peeved, irritated, frustrated, irked, annoyed, pissed off, etc.)

    Sad (bummed, down, blue, disappointed, devastated, lonely, etc.)

    Fear (anxious, worried, concerned, uptight, petrified, etc.)

    Shame (embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, etc.)

You’ll notice that these are pure feelings. They are the actual feelings and emotions you are having in the moment. Accurately describing your own feelings almost never begins with, “I feel that you…” or “I feel that it…” At that point, you’re usually about to give your opinion, rather than your emotion.

Focus on how you feel, and don’t be surprised if you identify more than one! It is really common to have a confusing mix of emotions, or to think you’re having one emotion, when maybe that one is really masking another.

For example, it’s common to have both fear and anger at the same time. Maybe what you are sure is pure anger (“I can’t believe they were late again; didn’t they know how important this was to me?”) is masking a deeper feeling of fear (“I’m getting worried that I’m not important to them anymore; I’m afraid maybe I don’t matter”).

Once you’ve identified what your own emotions are, you’ll decide what they’re really about.

What are your feelings really about?

This is where you get to move out of emotions and into your head. Let’s use a different example. You’re in your car, on your way to a lunch date. Someone in front of you is doing 5 mph under, you’ve missed the light, and it looks like you’re going to be late. You know you’re feeling frustrated. So, what are you frustrated about? (I know, I know, you’re torqued that no one knows how to drive.) But, beyond that:

    Are you frustrated because a tourist is going slowly, looking for street signs, and you haven’t had a vacation in two years?

    Are you frustrated because your boss ignored your need to leave the office on time…again?

    Are you frustrated because you’ve made a commitment to your partner that you’re going to be more punctual, but you lapsed into old habits and procrastinated this time?

You get the idea. This is the step where you sort out what your emotions are really about. Why is this important? Because you can’t fix a problem until you know what it is.

This brings us to the last step. Identifying what you really need.


What do you need in order to take care of what’s really bothering you?

Finally, we get where this is all headed. After you are clear on what’s going on internally, and what the real cause is, you are in a position to decide what you need: what you need to ask for, or what you need to do for yourself.

This is where a little self-knowledge and practice come in handy, but don’t worry if you’re not sure what you need at first. Slow down, and think about it. For example, do you know what you need when you are sad, as opposed to when you are angry? When you’re burned out at work, versus feeling powerless in your relationship?

When I’m anxious, I need to be gentle with myself, do some body-based relaxation and rhythmic breathing, reach out to talk to someone who cares about me, or reframe my thoughts to bring some balance back into my expectations. I sometimes need to cocoon, have a hot shower, or remind myself that I won’t always feel anxious.

But, when I’m angry, I need something different. It helps if I get outside and take a walk, expend some energy, and give myself some space to sort through what’s at the heart of my irritation. Sometimes it helps to discuss it with a trusted friend who can help me see things clearly rather than seeing red.

In addition to knowing what you need related to your feelings, you can also learn what you need for different problem areas.

Do you need to plan a three day weekend retreat and evaluate your job satisfaction? Or, do you need to buck up and finally have that talk with your spouse about what’s been on your mind? Do you know when you need to retreat, versus needing to act or speak up?

If you’re not sure, yet, don’t worry. This process takes time, but the more you use it, the more quickly you’ll know what you need in the face of certain emotions or issues.


Wrapping Up: Use the Gentle Start-Up to Reduce Anxiety and Gain Clarity

Knowing what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way is a great first step toward making a wise decision about what to do next, or what needs to change. Untangling your feelings, thoughts, and needs isn’t always easy. But, one nice thing about this exercise is that the more you do it, the easier the questions are to answer. As you get used to separating your feelings from the reasons for them, you can develop a wider range of ways to get your needs met.

Then, whether you are meeting your own needs, or asking others for what you need, you increase the chances that you’ll feel better, faster.
Carrere, S., and Gottman, J.M., (1999). Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion, Family Process, Vol. 38(3), 293-301