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Anxiety is what happens when your habit of worrying spirals out of control. As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I know all too well the grip it can hold on you and how scary it can feel. I also know how to beat it. Using the #5SecondRule in combination with a strategy called “reframing” is the answer.

The key to beating anxiety is understanding it. If you can catch it right as it kicks in and reframe it, you’ll stabilize your thoughts before your mind escalates it into full blown panic. And over time, as you use the #5SecondRule over and over, your anxiety will weaken and become what it started—out as simple worries. As you just learned, the habit of worry is easy to break.

I think I was born anxious. As a child, my parents said I had a “nervous stomach” and I worried about everything. I was that kid at camp who was so homesick she had to go home early. As a college student, my face would turn as red as a tomato when I got called on. I relied on liquid courage to talk to hot guys at parties because without alcohol I’d get stress hives on my neck.

The panic attacks started in my early twenties, when I began law school. A panic attack feels like you’re about to have a heart attack and can happen for two reasons: one, because you have something scary to do (public speaking, facing an ex, getting on airplane), or two, for no reason at all.

If you’ve never had a panic attack, here’s the best way to describe them: it’s when your mind and body have a “near miss” experience that’s totally out of context. Allow me to explain using a really simple analogy.

Normal Panic vs. Panic Attacks

There will be tons of times in your life when you will panic and it will be completely normal. Let’s say you are driving a car and are about to change lanes on the highway. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a car races by you and cuts you off, you swerve to get out of the way but they nearly miss you. When a “near miss” happens on the highway you feel a surge of adrenaline race through your body. Your heart races. Your breath speeds up. Your cortisol surges. Your body goes into a state of hyper-alertness so you can take control of the car. You might even get a little sweaty.

As soon as your body freaks out, it triggers your mind to find a reason why your body is so agitated. In this example on the highway, your brain knows you almost got in a car crash and that’s why your body freaked out.

When your mind has an explanation for why your body just freaked out, it won’t escalate the anxiety. Your mind will allow your body to calm down because it knows the “danger” has passed. Your life will go back to normal, and you’ll be a little more cautious when you change lanes next time.

When you have a panic attack, that same “near miss” sensation rushes your mind and body, without any warning and with no preceding event. You’ll be standing in your kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee and out of nowhere you have a sudden surge of adrenaline race through your body just like what happened when that car nearly missed you on the highway.

Your heart races. Your breath speeds up. You might get a little sweaty. Your cortisol surges. Your body goes into a state of hyper awareness. Now that your body is in an aroused state, your mind is going to race to try understand why. If you don’t have a legitimate reason why, your mind will think you must be in actual danger. Your mind will go prehistoric on you and escalate the fear, thinking that danger is imminent.

As your heart starts to race, your mind races for an explanation so it can make sense of what’s happening to your body and decide how to protect you. Maybe I’m having a heart attack. Maybe I don’t want to get married next month, after all. Maybe I’m getting fired…maybe I’m dying.

If your mind can’t find a suitable explanation, your brain will make the anxiety worse so that you will want to physically run away from the situation and leave the room. If you’ve ever seen someone have a panic attack, they freak out, dart around, have scattered thoughts, a “deer in the headlights” look, and suddenly “have to leave the room.” It’s a vicious cycle and one I was trapped in for years.

For a long time, I understood neither the difference between normal panic and panic attacks, nor the role that my mind was playing in escalating my anxiety. I went to therapists and tried all kinds of cognitive techniques to try to stop myself from panicking. It got so bad that I became afraid of the panic attacks themselves, and that fear, of course, just made me have more panic attacks.

Finally, I just medicated myself with Zoloft (a miracle drug). Zoloft worked wonders for me—for almost two decades. And if you are in a hole you can’t climb out of, get professional help (and possibly drugs). While not a substitute for therapy, they can be life changing.

I assumed that I would just take Zoloft for the rest of my life. And then we had kids and all three of them started to struggle with their own form of anxiety. It was beyond mere worrying. The anxiety was impacting their lives—they stopped doing sleepovers, slept on the floor of our bedroom, and were worried about everything. Oakley called his panicky state “Oliver” and our daughter Sawyer called her anxiety a “What-if Loop.” She once turned to me and said: “It’s like there’s this “What-if Loop” in my head and once I start thinking about all the “What-ifs” I get stuck thinking about all the “What-ifs” and I can’t get out of it because there are always “What-ifs.”

I knew how scary it was to suffer from it, and it was downright heartbreaking to see our kids struggling and afraid. It was very eye-opening and frustrating trying to help them deal with their anxiety because nothing worked. We went to specialists and tried all kinds of techniques. We set up games with prizes for them to “face their fears.” It just seemed to get worse.

I came off Zoloft so I could face my own anxiety head on without the help of drugs. I wanted to understand it better and figure out how to beat it—so I could help my kids figure out ways to beat theirs. Here’s what I learned.

Trying To Calm Down Does Not Work

I’ve spent countless hours with therapists who have told me and the kids to just “change the channel” and think about something else. That works if you are merely worried, but on its own, that strategy doesn’t work for full-blown anxiety. And there’s a reason. When you feel anxious, you are in a state of physical agitation. When you tell a person to calm down, you are asking someone to go from 60 mph to 0 mph. It’s like trying to stop a freight train by throwing a boulder in front of it; it’ll jump the tracks.

A study in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy showed that people who naturally try to suppress their unwanted thoughts end up being more distressed by said thoughts. That’s right, when you try to tell yourself to just calm down, you make the anxiety worse because you are fighting against it! When you understand how panic works, what it is, and the role your brain has in making it worse, you can beat it.

There are two strategies that work incredibly well together: Using the #5SecondRule to assert control over your mind and then reframing the anxiety as excitement so that your brain doesn’t escalate it and your body can calm down. Here’s how you do it.

Excitement and Anxiety Feel the Same In Your Body

I first used this “reframing strategy” as a public speaker. I get a lot of questions about public speaking and specifically how did I get over my fears and nerves about public speaking. My answer always surprises people: I have never gotten over my fears and nerves; I just use them to my advantage.

I speak for a living. A lot. In 2016, I was named the most-booked female speaker in America—98 keynotes in one year. Amazing. Do I get nervous? Absolutely. Every single time. But here’s the trick: I don’t call it “nerves.” I call it “excitement” because physiologically anxiety and excitement are the exact same thing. Let me say that again. Fear and excitement are the exact same thing in your body. The only difference between excitement and anxiety is what your mind calls it. Like the “near miss” example. If your brain has a good explanation for why your body is freaking out, it won’t escalate things.

The first time I ever really gave a legitimate speech was that TEDx Talk in San Francisco. I remember standing backstage listening to one PhD after another PhD give their talks, thinking to myself, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever gotten myself into. I am going to sound like a complete moron compared to these smart people.” My palms were sweaty. My heart was racing. My face was hot. My armpits were dripping like Niagara Falls. My body was preparing for ACTION! It was getting ready to do something. But I told myself that I was nervous. I labeled all those sensations as a sign that something bad was about to happen and the nerves got worse.

Want to know something wild? Six years and hundreds of speeches later…I still feel the EXACT same things in my body back stage. My palms sweat. My heart races. My face gets hot. My arm pits start dripping. Physiologically, I’m in a state of arousal. I’m about to go into ACTION and my body is getting ready. I feel the exact same thing as fear, I just channel it in a positive direction.

The more speeches I give, the more comfortable and confident I became about what I was saying, but as I gained confidence in my ability I noticed that the feelings in my body didn’t disappear. That’s when it dawned on me that maybe this was just my body’s way to get ready to do something cool. So, I started telling myself that I was getting excited; instead of calling it nervousness.

Say You’re Excited

I never knew my “trick” had some serious science behind it. It’s called “anxiety reappraisal.” Reframing your anxiety as excitement really works. It is as simple as it is powerful. Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks has conducted study after study to prove that it not only works to lower anxiety—it actually makes you perform better in math tests, speaking, and so forth!

In a nutshell, since anxiety is a state of arousal, it’s much easier to convince your brain that all those nervous feelings are just excitement rather than to try to calm yourself down. When using this technique in experiments ranging from singing karaoke to giving a speech on camera to taking a math test, participants who said “I’m excited” did better in every single challenge than those participants who said “I’m anxious.” Reframing your nervous into enthusiasm works, just as Suzi did. She used the #5SecondRule to 5- 4- 3- 2- 1 and kept “that feeling” in her stomach from stopping her:

Now, here’s the catch about telling yourself “I’m excited”—it doesn’t actually lower the feelings surging through your body. It just gives your mind an explanation that empowers you. That way the nervous feelings do not escalate. You stay in control and the agitation in your body will start to calm down as you begin to move.

The next time you have a panic attack while making coffee, experience stage fright, have pre-game jitters, or are worrying about a big exam or a job interview, use the #5SecondRule and this new research to beat your anxiety.

As soon as you feel the anxiety take over your body, take control of your mind, 5- 4- 3- 2- 1 just start telling yourself “I’m so excited” and push yourself to move forward.

This is what J. Greg did when he reframed his feelings in order to beat anxiety:

The physical impact (the push) is critical and it begins with counting. Exerting yourself allows your prefrontal cortex to take control and focus you on a positive explanation. When you first start using this strategy you might have to repeat it 27 times in one hour. The first time our 11-year-old used it to beat his anxiety about sleeping over at a friend’s house, he said “I’m excited to sleep over” over and over for the entire six-mile drive … bless his little heart.

When I pulled into Quinn’s driveway, I put the car in park and said, “How are you doing?” He responded, “My heart is still racing and my stomach feels funny, but I’m excited to sleep over.” That was six months ago. His anxiety about sleepovers is gone. He’s now actually excited. And that’s the power of this tool: It truly works.

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