What if anxiety was not the problem?

Anxiety, it’s painful, it’s annoying, it’s inconvenient, sometimes it can feel downright unbearable. But what if anxiety itself was not the issue?

Anxiety is there to protect us

Anxiety is an emotion that we all get to experience. It shows up to protect us from some type of danger. This could be a physical threat to our life, social rejection, or perhaps the possibility of failure.

Our brains are wired to protect us. The caveman that spent most of their day scanning the environment for any type of threat was more likely to survive and pass their genes onto future generations. The result? We all have minds that are wired to be anxious.

So, what can we do with anxiety? Fight hundreds of thousands of years of evolution? Seems like an unimaginable feat. What if there was something easier we could do?

The costs of trying to get rid of it

What if anxiety was not actually the problem but the problem was all the things we rely on to get rid of anxiety?

The wine we might overindulge in at the end of the night, the person we didn’t ask out on that date, the challenge we turned down at work, the party we did not go to.

What if the problem was also how we treat ourselves when anxiety shows up? All those harsh things we say to ourselves to make anxiety go away.

The struggle

Whenever an uncomfortable emotion shows up our mind almost always starts struggling with it.

For example, let’s say anxiety shows up, a very natural human emotion. Our mind does not like anxiety, it’s unpleasant, so what does it try to do? It tries to get rid of it. Our mind might start saying oh no! There’s anxiety, I don’t want anxiety, why is it coming up right now, what’s wrong with me? Now we have anxiety about anxiety. Our mind might start beating us up, what’s wrong with me, no one else seems to be struggling, I’m pathetic. Now we have sadness about our anxiety about our anxiety. This struggle can seem never ending and create a cascade of even more difficult emotions!

How to drop the struggle

What if there was a way to drop the struggle with anxiety? Anxiety shows up, and it’s not that we like it or want it, but we choose to not struggle with it. This takes a lot of practice, and does not come natural to any human!

There are generally 3 steps to dropping the struggle with any unpleasant emotion.

  1. Acknowledge: the first step is simply acknowledging the emotion. Often times we can get so caught up in a feeling, that we might not even notice what is happening. Acknowledging can be as simple as saying to yourself “I notice a feeling of anxiety” “I notice this feeling in my stomach”.
  2. Allow: the next step is practicing allowing it to be there, even though it is unpleasant. This can include saying to yourself “aha, anxiety, there you are, I recognize you are here to protect me from danger, thank you for trying to do your #1 job!”
  3. Accommodate: the final step is the hardest one. Accommodating means making room for the feeling. Allowing it to come and stay and go in its own time. In practice this can involve taking some deep breaths around the feeling, and as you are breathing around the feeling imagine that you are creating a space for it. If the anxiety grows, try to give it even more space.

How will this be helpful?

Anxiety is an inevitable part of life. It shows up for everyone. Often the issue is not anxiety itself but all the things we do to avoid anxiety in the first place.

When we practice dropping the struggle with anxiety, it’s freer to come and stay and go in its own time. With practice it doesn’t have to hold us back from doing the things we want to do, it can actually come along for the ride.

Practice, practice, practice

This idea sounds simple but requires a lot of practice. If you’d like to practice dropping the struggle with anxiety (or any unpleasant feeling you may be struggling with) check out this guided exercise where I walk you through the steps by imagining an emotion as an object.

If you’d like to learn more, check out this short youtube clip on the struggle switch which explains this idea of dropping the struggle (I reference it in the beginning of the audio exercise).


Self-compassion has received a lot of research recently (over 1,000 published studies)! Psychologist Dr. Kristen Neff was the first to come up with a formal definition of self-compassion, and use it as a measure in psychological research. Her definition of self-compassion is made up of 3 components.

1.) Mindfulness

In order to give ourselves compassion we must first be aware that we are suffering. Mindfulness simply means opening up and acknowledging our pain. In other words, noticing your thoughts and feelings. For example, you might say to yourself I am having the thought that I am not good enough, or I am having the thought that I am a lousy parent. You could also take note about what feelings these thoughts bring up, for example I notice a feeling of guilt, shame, sadness, worry, etc. For more information on mindfulness, check out my blog post on the topic.

2.) Common Humanity

When we suffer it is common to experience a sense of isolation. Common humanity involves reminding ourselves that as humans we all suffer, we all fail, and we are all inadequate in some way. If you are having a certain thought or feeling it means that millions of other people around the world have also had that same thought or feeling. This part is not intended to minimize your pain, or imply that things are not that bad. Instead, the purpose is to remind yourself that you are not alone.  There is a great quote that sums this up nicely.

“You are not one drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in one drop”


In other words your pain is part of the wider human experience. It does not isolate you, in fact it unites you with everyone else.

3.) Self-Kindness

This can be the trickiest part of self-compassion for many people. Self-kindness means speaking to yourself the same way you would speak to someone you deeply cared about. Quite often, our minds are our own worst enemies. When we are struggling with something, our minds tend to beat us up. However, if someone we loved was struggling with the exact same thing, we usually would respond with kindness. Take a moment to think about the last time someone you loved was going through something difficult… what did you say to them? How did you act towards them? Now, think about the last time you were going through something difficult… what did you say to yourself? How did you act towards yourself? For many of us there is a drastic difference.  

But does it actually help?

There is a growing body of research that shows self-compassion can protect us from developing mental health issues. One study really stood out to me. Hiraoka et al. (2015) measured levels of self-compassion in U.S. combat veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They found that those with higher levels of self-compassion were less likely to develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) one year later, and that this was more predictive than the amount or quality of the combat they faced. Think about that for a second, how these veterans related to themselves in their moments of pain and struggle was more predictive of whether or not they would later develop PTSD than the actual trauma they faced. 

We all have different levels of self-compassion. But what is very exciting, is that research has shown self-compassion is something that can be learned, and when taught, can increase emotional resilience in the face of stress and lead to greater overall psychological well being. There are many different types of self-compassion practices you can implement into your daily life. Below I have attached an excellent workbook that does just that, as well as Dr. Kristen Neff’s website where you can measure your current level of self-compassion, access free self-compassion exercises, and also learn the common misconceptions people have about self-compassion. 


Dr. Neff’s Self-Compassion Website


Hiraoka, R., Meyer, E. C., Kimbrel, N. A., DeBeer, B. B., Gulliver, S. B., & Morissette, S. B. (2015). Self‐compassion as a prospective predictor of PTSD symptom severity among trauma‐exposed US Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress28(2), 127-133.