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5 Questions to Help Soothe Your Anxious Mind

How asking yourself different questions can relieve your anxiety.

Key points

  • People with anxiety ask themselves the same questions repeatedly.
  • Asking oneself different questions than usual can shake up one's thinking and break the stranglehold of anxiety.
  • A helpful question to ask oneself to manage anxiety is, "When have I coped well with a problem I hadn't anticipated?"
Derick Anies/Unsplash
Source: Derick Anies/Unsplash

Trying to get rid of all your worries is like a game of whac-a-mole. Even when you bash one down, more will pop up. Therefore, to live well with anxiety, you need a strategy other than convincing yourself bad things won't happen. To help you find that, here are five questions to ponder.

You don't have to answer all these questions. Skim the post, then pick one question and jot down your answer.

If you find it difficult to think of an answer immediately, revisit the question periodically until you do. You can also ask someone who knows you well if they can think of any examples from your life.

1. What are bad things that have happened to you that weren't catastrophes?

For example:

  • A car accident in which no one was hurt.
  • A time when your work didn't get the accolades you hoped for, but when no one started hating you, your cold streak didn't continue, and it didn't mean you never got another opportunity.
  • A time when someone was mildly annoyed with you but they didn't lose all respect for you or sever the relationship.
  • A dream that didn't come true but you found a new dream, and you don't feel daily regret or loss about the old dream.

This exercise will help you recognize that most things that go wrong aren't catastrophes. Your own examples are the best way to learn this principle. They might be annoying, frustrating, create extra to-dos, or hurt, but they're not catastrophes.

2. When have you worried about a million different things, yet when something went wrong, it wasn't something you had anticipated?

Worriers make a big effort to anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong. Yet, when things do actually go wrong, exactly what happens is often completely out of left field and unexpected. You can anticipate dozens of scenarios, yet still be surprised by a problem you hadn't foreseen.

This happens to me all the time! It even happened yesterday.

Try to see the funny side of this. You can use self-talk like this: "Oh brain, you spent all that time and energy angsting about X, Y, Z, and then this stupid thing happens. All that wasted anxiety! Oh, well, let's move on and make the best of it. I can get good at rolling with the punches, if I practice it."

3. When have you coped well with a problem you didn't anticipate?

Sometimes anxious people hold the belief that when something goes wrong, they'll cope better if they've anticipated it. However, in general, we cope just as well with problems we hadn't anticipated.

What's an example of when this has been true for you? Your examples from Question #2 may overlap here!

4. How can you still make good decisions when your cognition is not in tip-top shape?

There are some expected scenarios when it's hard to think at 100%. For example, if you're arriving in a foreign country after a very long flight. Or, if you're at the doctor's and feeling very flustered. How can you still make good decisions in these situations?

Once you've thought through a few of these scenarios, you'll probably have some good general strategies.

Examples: bringing a support person, reviewing information twice, pausing to gather your thoughts, having a drink and a snack to help you think more clearly, etc. You can even write yourself a list of these strategies. In fact, it's a good idea to do that.

Once you have a big enough basket of strategies for when your thinking is somewhat knocked off, there should be at least one in your basket that will help you in virtually any situation. You then don't have to think through every possible situation. You'll already have it covered.

5. Think of one of your frequent fears. If that were true, what would you still do today?

One of my big fears is getting MS, ALS, or something similar. In particular, I fear getting MS as I had a health scare related to that back in 2015, and the fear still haunts me. These are some things that I will do today, and that I would still do if I had MS.

  • Snuggle my sleeping 5-year-old for 20 minutes before getting out of bed.
  • Eat the yogurt I'm looking forward to.
  • Do several hours of meaningful work that will help others and build my skills and knowledge.
  • Take my supplements and medications.
  • Charge my phone.
  • Deposit the e-check I received by email yesterday.
  • Reach out to a friend.
  • Watch some of the Adele concert.

Identify the Venn diagram between what you're doing today, and what you would do today if your fear were already true. Include the big and the small, as in my example. This can help you visualize how you would cope and reassure you that if your fear happened, you would still be you. This exercise doesn't work well for all fears, but it does for many.

How did this post help you? How did it make you think differently about anxiety and worry?

People with anxiety ask themselves the same questions repeatedly. For example, "why do I keep repeating my mistakes, what aren't I as super as so-and-so, why do I suck, how can I remove all uncertainty from life?"

When you ask yourself different questions, it can shake up your thinking, and break the stranglehold of anxiety. Give it a try and see if it works, at least a little, for you.

(Author Chris Guillebeau has a thoughtful article on the dominant questions people ask themselves. It's worth checking out if this article has stirred your interest in this topic.)