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I’m a psychologist and a writer on a mission to teach kids, adults, and couples how to make the mind a safer place to live by changing their relationship to anxiety… one thought at a time. More about that in a second. For over two decades it has been my great privilege to be immersed in the world of anxiety treatment— in session with thousands of patients over the years, and on my laptop typing away in books and blogposts the things I’ve learned about how anxiety works—how it gets built, how we unintentionally tighten its grip by engaging with those anxious thoughts, and how we can each systematically and wisely wrestle ourselves from the distorted impact it has to make more room for our (real) lives. In 1999 I founded the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, PA and named it as such in an effort to de-stigmatize and normalize both the experience of having anxiety, and to highlight the assertive and essential act of getting treatment, because anxiety treatment works. That was the same year I published my first book, Freeing Your Child from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to help parents navigate the confusing and frightening symptoms of a disorder which, like all anxiety disorders, is very treatable given the right approach. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent and the most treatable psychiatric condition. In 2003, I created the educational website Worrywisekids.org to further disseminate new ideas for how caring adults could help kids to see they are smarter than their anxiety, and learn to not fall for the tricks that worry can play. Since then I’ve written a few more books, including some of the best-selling in the field: Freeing Your Child from Anxiety—now with a 2nd edition; Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking—in a 2nd edition, too!, and Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, so that grownups can have a book of their own. It’s for anyone suffering from everyday worry, anxiety, or depression. My books have been translated into many languages including Dutch, Chinese, French, Korean, and Turkish.s
When I’m not working on a new way to explain anxiety, I’m a mom of two grown daughters I love and admire beyond words, who have grown up immersed with me in this world of explaining anxiety, and have graciously and patiently allowed (with permission!) for me to share some of the funny and poignant moments of our lives for a good cause as they reflect universal experiences we all share navigating the journey of our lives.
You may notice when you flip through my books that they are filled with drawings— like the ones on this page. These are courtesy of my generous and talented collaborator/husband, Phillip Stern. The metaphors I use which Phil turns into visuals, e.g., worry’s greatest hits, the worry Ferris wheel, snapping back the measuring tape of life, the brain nets, anxiety as “junk mail,” are mental short-cuts to help quickly grasp a new way to look at what’s happening to us in an anxious moment. The levity these ideas offer gives us distance, lowers our fear temperature, and gets our thinking-brain engaged (vs. our worry-brain)—and in a flash, it’s reason to the rescue! Instantly we zoom out a little, and just that littlest bit of breathing room begins to shift our internal conversation. We aren’t as impressionable, we are savvy consumers of the sort of catastrophizing and awfulizing sales pitch anxiety—with all best intentions— is sending our way. Drawings are a powerful tool in resisting the pull towards dread and fear. We may still be fearful, but not too fearful. We may still be uncertain, but we can begin to ask a different question—instead of “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” we think—“what’s the most likely?” What would scenario would we bet on if we could win big, or what would we mark as “true” or “false” if we were taking a test about these predictions and wanted to get an A? Fortunately, mercifully, and logically rarely is the worst case scenario actually how things turn out. Worry doesn’t help us prepare for tough moments, it distracts us and uses up our valuable energy on the most unlikely outcomes.
I love what I do and have learned so much from my patients and like to share what I’ve learned. I am regularly interviewed in the press, have done hundreds of interviews of all sorts with journalists and radio hosts about how we can free ourselves from anxiety. You can find these on the press page including interviews with The New York Times, Romper, Bustle, Real Simple, Refinery29, eHarmony, Forbes, O the Oprah Magazine, Parents, NPR, BBC, US News and World Report, and more. I blog regularly on my Worrywise website here and at Psychology Today. You can find all my writings and interviews together here in what I refer to as the Anxiety Toolkit—Worrywise library— to learn about almost every kind of anxiety— and if you don’t find what you’re looking for, chances are I’m working on a blogpost about it, so please subscribe and keep an eye out!
What do we do about the ubiquitous nature of anxiety? It’s everywhere we want to be. And unfortunately, it gets there first. Listening to the sounds of worry from patients of all ages— from the young kids who are afraid to go to sleep at night because of monsters under the bed, or fear of vomiting, or afraid to go to a friend’s house because of the scary (but small) dog next door, to the teenagers worrying about friends, grades and college admission, to the adults—even grandparents I see who have worry on their mind—about the future, pre-wedding jitters, job anxiety, social anxiety, health anxiety, or financial anxiety, and don’t know how to shut it off— I came to the conclusion early on that some of the bravest people walking the planet are those contending with anxiety. They face more obstacles—even if they are invisible to others—and that in and of itself becomes part of the challenge, and their heroic feat.
The “trick question” I ask every child is: “How many people do you think worry in the world?” The answer that most of the kids get—is that it’s a really, really, really big number. It’s all of us. We might be afraid that our thoughts aren’t normal, and then we start worrying about that too! So we all have anxiety, but people with problematic anxiety are those who don’t (yet) have a plan to recognize when worry’s talking and how to respond differently to its warnings, by testing not trusting the words worry tells us, fact-checking our fears, and over all picking up our rightful editing pen and putting it to the narrative of our lives, the soundtrack to our days to make it more accurate, more livable, and more growthful.
My approach is to help each person see that they can take charge—in creative and practical ways— of their relationship with anxiety by realizing that they actually are in a relationship with their thoughts. And like any relationship they can decide what to listen to, and what to disregard. They are the boss, the CEO; worry is but one consultant or even simply an employee. Our ancient wiring makes sure that anxiety has the first word, but we can make sure that it doesn’t have the last. Our inner alarm system instantly gets us ready to protect ourselves from threats big and small, but it’s an over-reaction—it’s not a tiger in the brush about to have us for lunch, it’s a book report, an audition, an interview, a date. Our worry brain isn’t the best part of the brain for the job in those instances. It makes us feel like we need to run for our lives or fight, or freeze. What we need in those moments is to think clearly, take stock of who we are and what we know, and proceed with our lives—not run from uncertainties. Truly, our opportunity for growth, for expanding our lives and mastering the challenges we face lies there.
When we’re in an anxious state, with adrenaline surging, we’re not curious, we’re not exploring, we’re not really loving, we might not even be kind. Even if we are usually very kind people! We are in survival mode. So, what happens to each of us, and our families, our communities, the world when we are perpetually in anxiety mode? We don’t grow. We don’t thrive. We don’t advance. We don’t take smart risks. We suffer. We struggle. We let each other down. We limit ourselves. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are easy, practical, and powerful ways to step into a new role with your thoughts and your life, and you’ll find them here. So—welcome to the community. By changing your relationship with anxiety you will also– through your empathy, or by sharing ideas and blogposts– be helping others change their relationship with anxiety, too. I think of it as the community cleanup effort and this community spans the globe. Together, we do better, and we can do this. Thank you for joining me here for the upward spiral, to protect and cultivate the unlimited potential we all possess—especially for the children, but really for all of us— and here’s to less worry all around!
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