3 Types of Soothing Self-Talk for Anxiety
Ways to talk yourself through anxious feelings, worry, and procrastination.
Posted August 8, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Judging how much one cares about something by one's anxiety level only reinforces the anxiety.
- Worrying doesn't do anything to lessen the likelihood of negative outcomes.
- Anxiety and procrastination often go hand in hand.
When you feel anxious, compassionate self-talk can help you see the situation in a more balanced and realistic way, feel better, and make better choices.
Here are some types of compassionate talk for anxiety you can try, with some explanation of the principles behind them. These are all phrases I've personally been finding helpful lately.
1. "Feeling anxious is a sign that I care. But how anxious I am doesn't indicate how much I care. Being more anxious doesn't mean I care more."
Why try this: When we feel anxious, that emotion arising is a clue about what matters to us. For example, if I'm anxious about doing a good job at a work task, it's a sign that doing valuable, high-quality work is important to me. There's nothing wrong with that.
Similarly, if I care about being liked, it's a sign that treating other people well and being accepted by others is important to me. Again, nothing wrong with that. It's adaptive.
However, when you're anxious, it can be important not to equate more anxiety with caring more, as that can reinforce your anxiety. For example, I'm anxious in my pregnancy because I care about my baby's well-being and mine, but being more anxious doesn't demonstrate I care more. I can be less anxious and still care just as much.
When to use: When you're worried about something you care deeply about and/or something you have worked hard for.
2. "Worrying more will not protect me against bad outcomes or my fears."
Why try this: Anxious people often have a mixture of negative and positive beliefs about worry. In research, this is called the meta-cognitive theory of worry. For example, you might be concerned that stress and worry could harm your physical health (a belief that worry is negative). But, you might also believe that worrying helps you be prepared, keeps you on your toes, and stops you from becoming complacent (a belief that worry is positive).
This phrase is a reminder that, largely, worrying isn't protective. By itself, worrying doesn't do anything to lessen the likelihood of negative outcomes.
When to use: Use this phrase when you have a sense that not worrying will result in letting your guard down. Or use it when you have any type of superstitious sense that if you worry enough, what you worry about won't come true.
3. "I don't have to always exceed expectations."
Why try this: A pattern I've noticed in my current pregnancy is that just meeting expectations and staying on track doesn't always soothe my anxiety. It's not reassuring enough if my blood pressure is normal, for example; it's only reassuring if it's at the lowest end of normal. It's not reassuring enough if my baby is measuring consistent with their due date; I'm only reassured if they're a few days ahead.
When I thought about it, this pattern happens in other areas of my life too. For example, I'm only reassured that someone likes my work if they gush about it.
This style of thinking can also be related to procrastination. Anxiety and procrastination often go hand in hand. I've written in the past about sample phrases you can use to talk yourself through procrastination. A version of one of those phrases is, "This doesn't have to be the best work I've ever done." That phrase gets at a similar principle. Believing you have to always exceed expectations can lead to distress and/or avoidance.
When to use: If you notice yourself only feeling soothed by exceeding expectations—or if you're procrastinating and need to lower the stakes so a task feels more manageable.
Note: If you're concerned that you might start performing less well by adjusting your thinking in this way, test that assumption. In my experience, the only consequence is less angst and procrastination and doing better work as a result, not worse.