TRYING SOMETHING NEW—a hobby, a sport, a restaurant, even hanging with a just-made friend or going on a date with a crush—can be extremely rewarding. Unless you have anxiety, a mental illness, or simply an overactive brain, in which case the spiraling “what ifs?”—What if people think I’m weird? What if I suck? What if I embarrass myself?—steamroll the fun.
I struggle with anxiety, but I’ve found an incredible tool for overcoming the waterfall of fear: reframing my “what ifs?” as curiosity, instead of judgment. This mental pivot allows me to tap into the beginner’s mind, the practice of shifting one’s perspective from negative thought patterns to approaching a thought as if it’s a brand-new experience, encouraging new positive neural pathways. Here’s how you can do it, too.
Identify the trigger of your anxiety and the feelings and potential actions that come from it (the “what ifs?”). Make mental notes or write them down. Say, for instance, you’re learning a new language but the thought of speaking it out loud makes you sweat. Fear is the trigger: what if I look dumb, make an embarrassing mistake, or feel like a fraud? Naming these worries gives you the power to see them for what they really are: thoughts.
Examine the feelings. Are they things you know to be true? Spoiler: they aren’t. They’re just default thoughts because your brain’s designed to follow the easiest routes. You can’t know or control what another person thinks about you, you can only control your own thoughts and experiences. So you might flub a word or ask a question that doesn’t make sense. Those are totally common experiences for someone learning a new language.
Ask the “what if?” questions again, but this time, skip the anxiety-laced scenarios and answer them in an entirely new way. This shifts your brain from its well-worn patterns to a beginner’s mindset. For example, someone who fluently speaks the language you’re learning might laugh about your misstep, but it’s probably from a place of empathy and compassion. Or flip the “what if?” to deepen your understanding of a new language: you might make a mistake, but now you can pause, acknowledge that you’re practicing something new, and then absorb the correction. In these new scenarios, you’re not attaching judgment to what unfolds; you’re instead engaging with something that would normally send you spiraling as simply part of the experience itself. This distinction is crucial. This step is challenging, but the more you practice, the more you’ll be able to do it on the fly. If you feel stuck, imagine your “what ifs?” in a Daffy Duck voice or raise your eyebrow and use an accent to repeat them out loud, forcing your brain to change its pattern. Yeah, it’s weird, but totally worth it.
Because it’s easy for an anxious mind to put certain things on blast, it’s also easy to forget you have some power to make those thoughts new. Embrace that beginner’s mindset, then ask yourself: what if?
I struggle with anxiety, but I’ve found an incredible tool for overcoming the waterfall of fear.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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