One way to calm an anxious mind: Notice when you’re doing OK

Sep 29, 2020

Manshen Lo

To keep our ancestors alive, our brains evolved an ongoing internal trickle of unease. It’s the little whisper of worry that keeps you scanning your inner and outer worlds for signs of trouble.

This background of unsettledness and watchfulness is so automatic to most people that we can forget it’s there.

See if you can tune in to a tension, guarding or bracing in your body. It could also be a vigilance about your environment or other people. Or a block against completely relaxing, letting your guard down or letting go.

While the brain’s default setting of apprehensiveness is a great way to keep a monkey aware of predators, it’s a crummy way for humans to live.

It wears down our well-being, feeds anxiety and depression and makes us turn away from the things that matter to us. And it’s based on a lie.

In effect, that uneasiness in the background is continually whispering in your mental ear: “You’re not safe, you’re surrounded by threats, you can never afford to lower your guard.”

But take a close look at this moment, right now — probably, you are basically all right. No one is attacking you, you are not sick, there is no crisis where you sit.

Things may be far from perfect, but you’re OK.

By “right now,” I mean this moment. When our mind goes into the future, we worry and plan. When our mind goes into the past, we resent and regret. Threads of fear are woven into the mental tapestries of past and future.

Look again at this thin slice of time that is the present. In this moment, are you basically OK? Are you breathing? Is your heart beating? Is your mind working?

In daily life, it’s possible to access this fundamental sense of all-rightness even while you’re getting things done. You’re not ignoring real threats or issues or pretending that everything is perfect — it’s not.

But in the middle of everything, you can usually see that you’re actually all right, right now.

Several times a day, notice that you’re basically all right. You may want more certainty or love or ketchup for your French fries. Or you may want less pain or heartache or unemployment. All reasonable.

But meanwhile, underneath all the to-ing and fro-ing, you are OK. Underneath your desires and activities is an aliveness and an awareness that is doing fine this second.

There you are fixing dinner.

Notice that you’re all right, right now, and perhaps say that softly in your mind.

Or you’re driving. Say, “I’m all right, right now.”

Or you’re talking with someone on a video call: “I’m all right, right now.”

Or doing emails or putting a child to bed: “I’m all right, right now.”

Notice that while feeling all right, right now, you can still get things done and deal with problems. The fear that bad things will happen if you let yourself feel OK is unfounded; let this sink in. You do not need to fear feeling all right.

Sometimes, of course, you’re really not all right. Maybe something terrible has happened, or your body is very disturbed, or your mind is very upset. Do what you can at these times to ride out the storm.

But as soon as possible, notice that the core of your being is OK, like the quiet place 50 feet underwater, beneath a hurricane howling above the sea.

Noticing that you’re actually all right, right now is not laying a positive attitude over your life like a pretty veil. Instead, you are knowing a simple but profound fact: “In this moment I am all right.”

You are sensing the truth in your body — deeper than fear — that it is breathing and living and OK. You are recognizing that your mind is functioning fine, no matter how nutty and not-fine the contents swirling through it are.

Settling into this basic sense of okayness is a powerful way to build well-being and resources in your brain and being, and it’s a way of taking a stand for the truth.

Excerpted from the new book The Anxiety First Aid Kit: Quick Tools for Extreme, Uncertain Times by Rick Hanson PhD et al. Reprinted with permission from New Harbinger Publications. © 2020 by New Harbinger Publications. 

Watch Rick Hanson’s TEDxMarin Talk here: 

About the Authors

Rick Hanson PhD is a psychologist, meditation teacher and the author of many books including Buddha's Brain. He co-founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and edits the Wise Brain Bulletin.

Matthew McKay PhD is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He has authored and co-authored numerous books, including Self-Esteem, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, Thoughts and Feelings, and ACT on Life Not on Anger. He specializes in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of anxiety and depression.

Martha Davis PhD was a psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Clara, California, where she practiced individual, couples and group psychotherapy for more than 30 years prior to her retirement. She is coauthor of Thoughts and Feelings.

Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman worked for the Kaiser Permanente Health Care Program for 37 years before retiring. During her tenure, she was a clinical social worker, hospice director, researcher, health educator, management development instructor and coach.