3 Techniques for Overcoming Anxiety

Anxiety can be a force for good, writes Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön.

Anxiety is stifling. Being on edge affects every facet of life, from existential crises to overreacting when the barista gets an order wrong. Yet as a physiological response, anxiety can be not only mitigated but actually worked with. Through practices like the Tibetan Buddhist tonglen (giving and taking) and through cognitive reframing, anxiety can be transformed into a source for deeper self-understanding, compassion, and contentment. 

So thinks Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, who calls this place of frustration and confusion “the squeeze.” It’s the point in which we feel stuck, caught, with no escape—trapped between “the upliftedness of our ideas and the rawness of what’s happening in front of our eyes.” Rather than seeking an out, her advice is to dive right into the source of the suffering, the foundation of your anxiety. Both during a tonglen practice and while navigating through life on a daily basis, anxiety can be a catalyst for growth. 

The distance between philosophy and practice is vast if you allow it to be so. Putting Chödrön’s ideas into action is daunting; confronting the source of anxiety and suffering is no easy task. Yet something incredible happens in the attempt. If you’re open to such a practice, it works. 

A few years ago I went through a divorce. Shortly after I faced two surgeries in eleven months, one for cancer, the other for knee surgery. In each situation I followed Chödrön’s guidelines. And in each case, I allowed myself to fully experience the physical and emotional sensations associated with my predicament. It offered a sense of confidence that translated into seeking contentment in every situation.

Even in smaller struggles Chödrön’s methodology proves fruitful. I’m writing this article with a strained biceps brachii, which occurred during a kettlebell workout. It was an overuse injury—I teach four kettlebell classes a week and increased my weight too quickly. As I teach a dozen fitness and yoga classes every week, being injured is frustrating. Rather than being consumed by that overambitious morning, I sought alternatives, which translated into more studio cycling and Pilates. Reframing my situation keeps me progressing.

We often wait for guidance for the big problems—cancer, divorce, death—but allow smaller issues to collect and affect our lives in seemingly understated though chronic ways. Our relationship to stressors is like background noise, ever present yet rarely noticed. Still it’s there, affecting our nervous system subconsciously, helping direct our actions in ways we don’t realize. 

The application of the following three techniques work for anxieties large and small. They can be practiced during meditation as well as in life. Applying them is both a discipline and a mindset. Instead of avoiding anxiety you use it to your advantage. You harness the physiological changes in your body as potential energy for positive change. Then you apply it to your personal situation in hopes of transforming stress into progress.

Go to the Places that Scare You

A basic meditation technique is to notice thoughts as thoughts, constructs created by your mind, the neuronal firings orchestrated in and by your brain. If you can label a thought as a thought without judgment—this is a good thought about a personI love: this is a bad thought about a terrible situation—you step away from your investment in the content of the thought. As Chödrön writes,

Meditation practice is how we stop fighting with ourselves, how we stop struggling with circumstances, emotions or moods.

When you label thoughts as thoughts you loosen up demands of winning or losing and simply relax into what is. If you can accomplish this in places that frighten you you’ll no longer fall victim to thoughts accompanying fearful situations. Sometimes unfortunate events occur; at such times your response is indicative of your character. 

But many emotional problems are self-created. When obsessing over such thoughts we create the circumstances for them to manifest. By contrast confronting pain lessens the possibility of such a manifestation. If you’ve worked through the physical-emotional sensations associated with the source of the pain, there’s nothing left to fear. 

Use Poison as Medicine

In Indian mythology an epic struggle resulted in the churning of the ocean of milk. During this fight between the forces of good and evil a poison, Halahala (black mass), was released from the serpent demon Vasuki’s mouth. All of creation would have been destroyed had Shiva not consumed the poison, resulting in his nickname, Neelakantha (blue-throated one). 

Chödrön says to act like Shiva and swallow the poisons of your life. She notes that three poisons afflicting humanity are passion, aggression, and ignorance. Instead of suppressing these poisons, she advises to use them so that “they become seeds of compassion and openness.” She continues, 

When suffering arises, the tonglen instruction is to let the story line go and breathe it in—not just the anger, resentment or loneliness that we might be feeling, but the identical pain of others who in this very moment are also feeling rage, bitterness, or isolation.

Since these poisons are part of the human condition it’s senseless to deny their existence.In attempting to understand the suffering of others—by engaging in empathy—we move toward difficulties with a softer edge, refusing to back down. This helps us deal with our own suffering better. Poison that helps you grow is useful medicine. But if you treat it like poison it can destroy you in the long run. 

Regard What Arises as Awakened Energy

Instead of viewing yourself as having a “good” and “bad” side, treating every experience as part of your experience aids in the path to contentment. Instead of being trapped in feelings of guilt, shame, and being wrong, Chödrön suggests befriending such seemingly conflicting feelings. By doing so you “dissolve this sense of dualism” between your “sides.” 

This is especially daunting if you have regrets. Pretending life would have turned out splendidly if only you did this or that in the past keeps you trapped in history, unable to face the present moment. Beautifying tragedies is not helpful, nor is avoiding conflict. At every step being able to take responsibility for your actions and reactions to situations beyond your control allows you to find comfort even in the most uncomfortable situations. This is the practice. 

Chödrön concludes, 

In terms of everyday experience, these methods encourage us not to feel embarrassed about ourselves.… Chaos is part of our home ground. Instead of looking for something higher or purer, work with it just as it is.

A daunting task for an animal vigilant on displaying its beauty and glory at every turn. Smoothing out the rough edges requires handling them directly, however. Glossing over them or prettying them up does not serve you, and so diving straight into the source of anxiety yields much more beneficial results.


Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less