Weekly Thoughts on Anxiety

By: Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

This is an archive of the sends to my subscriber list.


What Is


The human brain is geared toward prediction and evaluation. This means it constantly time-travels into future possibilities and categorizes things into simple categories, like "good" or "bad." The ability to predict and evaluate allows us to solve complex problems, reach long-term goals, and stay safe. However, if left unchecked and unexamined, it brings suffering.

One of the best ways to keep it in check is by regularly engaging in mindfulness. Mindfulness is about observing the present moment. It doesn't mean never getting pulled into the future or never evaluating, but instead labeling and observing these tendencies when they happen rather than participating in them. 

YouTube Feed


Thoughts are similar to YouTube and the videos it suggests to us. Many videos have thumbnails and content that are alarming, distressing, or in some way demand our immediate attention. The more we click and engage, the more we're fed similar content in the future.

We can't control the recommended videos, but we can control whether to click on them or not. Even if we click, we can control whether we believe the content and how long we stay on the video.

Just like our thoughts, most videos aren't worth watching, no matter how convincing they might seem.

Welcoming Anxiety


One of the most challenging but most beneficial shifts in attitude towards anxiety is welcoming it. Welcoming anxiety includes a willingness to feel it and be with it. This is hard.

Learning how to ride a bike, drive a car, and play a sport is also really hard.

Welcoming anxiety is a learned skill, but it's also a feeling and a state of mind. Just like learning to ride a bike, drive a car, or play a sport, slowly develop the skills to get the "feeling of it" and then keep refining.



Attempting to think yourself out of overthinking is like forcefully yanking on a ball of tangled thread. It just doesn't work. 

Overthinking is often caused by overestimating the value of thinking and underestimating the value of paying attention to the external world and our bodies without interpretation.

The ability to think and problem-solve is an essential tool, but it's far from a perfect tool and isn't useful for all situations.

Outcome Focused


The best way to get a specific outcome is to focus on what you can control now and leave the rest. Anxiety refuses to accept this, though. It demands a certain outcome.

Instead of measuring success based on the outcome (which is anxiety's measuring stick), try measuring it a different way by asking:

  • Did I act in a way consistent with my values?
  • No matter the outcome, how do I want to look back on this time and be proud of how I handled it?

We don't need anxiety's acceptance or approval. In fact, the only way to get it is by sacrificing our values. 

Beliefs About Thoughts


Engaging with an automatic thought is a choice, but it doesn't feel like it because we often:

  1. Assume all thoughts are worth engaging in
  2. Over-identify with our thoughts, believing they are a reflection of who we are
  3. Believe our thoughts reflect reality

Creating distance from our thoughts takes consistent reminders that most thoughts are just static on the radio. 

Worry vs Planning


Worry often disguises itself as planning. In reality, it's just circular, busy work for the brain.

Worry is circular, problem-focused, strives for certainty and perfection, ignores probability, and only focuses on possibility. 

Planning has an end, is solution-focused, accepts reasonable amounts of uncertainty, values probable outcomes, not possible outcomes, and acknowledges that no plan is perfect. 

Growth & Perfection


On the surface, perfection seems like a worthwhile cause. Underneath, it's the source of self-criticism, guilt, and shame. All of these promote giving up or pursuing perfection even more until we burn out and are forced to give up.

Perfectionism makes promises of peace and success but delivers more pain and stagnation. Mistakes warn us of failure and rejection but deliver growth and resilience. 

Anticipatory Anxiety & Decisions


Anticipatory anxiety is often worse than the feared situation itself.

If you look closely, anticipatory anxiety is often closely linked with indecisiveness. That is, delaying making a decision. 

For example, someone who can't sleep because they fear a big public speech the following day is likely indecisive about getting up on stage or calling in sick. Or whether to read word for word from the script or try to be more natural. 

Anticipatory anxiety often decreases as we start to make decisions about the feared event.



Taking a paradoxical approach of leaning into anxiety rather than avoiding it is essential. But self-care is just as important.

Technically, self-care is likely to fall into the category of anxiety avoidance. When we label self-care as anxiety avoidance, it's a recipe for self-criticism, guilt, and feelings of failure.

Imagine a marathon runner beating himself up for taking a day off to allow his muscles to rest and repair or a race-car driver criticizing herself for making a pit stop to refuel and get new tires.

Anxiety work doesn't require living in a state of constant anxiety. It's about taking steps to counter the avoidance strategy in general.

It's helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. In general, am I leaning into anxiety more than before?

And no matter the answer, you still deserve self-care.

Core Fears


Someone who is afraid of flying is said to have a flying phobia. Flying is not usually the fear, however. It's more of a trigger and doesn't paint the entire picture.

One person who fears flying might be afraid the plane will crash. Another person will fear having a panic attack mid-air. Another person will fear contamination or getting sick. These are the core fears for each individual. 

When we're trying to challenge anxiety, we want to make sure we are speaking to the core fear, not the surface-level fear or trigger.

Psychological Flexibility


Being able to remain in the present moment, being open to automatic thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges that arise while also holding and acting on long-term values rather than short-term comforts, is called psychological flexibility.

It's an important muscle to attend to and work out regularly. And think of it as a group of muscles rather than just one.

A professional basketball player might go surfing and wake up the following day extremely sore. Though extremely fit, surfing activates the athlete's muscles in new ways.

To build this muscle specifically for anxiety, examining areas of your life where you already have strong psychological flexibility can be helpful. What is that feeling like? What skills do you utilize? How did you build it? How do you maintain it? Then, use this as a template to carry over to anxiety's playing field.

Most anxiety work is about fine-tuning the existing psychologically flexible muscles.



This is the time of year when many of us set intentions. Anxiety work is all about examining our own intentions (e.g., "Was I trying to escape from anxiety or lean into it?") and slowly changing our habitual way of responding and relating to it.

Just like getting a new gym membership, no matter how well thought out our intentions are, our brains love to default back to their old routines.

One way to assist with overriding our brain's autopilot is to identify the reasons or motivations for your intention: Why did I choose this intention? How will my life be different if I stick to this intention? How will my relationships be different? By defining our motivations and values, we build a resource that we can tap into when our brain tries to suck us back into its old routine.

Another resource to draw off is reminding ourselves that research has disproven the old saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" and it's called neuroplasticity.

One of my intentions this year is to create a free, online, comprehensive resource for anxiety. I look forward to sharing that once it's ready (enough).

Happy New Year!


Weekly Thoughts on Anxiety + Event Updates

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