Managing Anxiety: The Externalizing Technique

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When anxiety takes over, it can feel like you’re possessed. You may become paralyzed and unable to make decisions. You may question your every move. You may find yourself playing that tired old song, “What-if…” over and over till you get a headache.

If you suffer from anxiety, there are lots of tools you can use to feel better. Meditation, relaxation techniques, and positive self-talk are some examples. But it can also be helpful to externalize your anxiety – to see it as something separate form your essential self.

Externalization is a process developed by Narrative therapists. The idea is that we often confuse people with problems. For example, we may say, “I’m anxious,” instead of “I’m feeling some anxiety.” Changing your language can make a subtle but powerful difference. Notice how the two statements above can make a difference in how you feel about yourself. You are not anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling that can come and go.

You can take this process a step further by giving your anxiety a separate identity – it’s own personality, if you will. Imagine your anxiety is an actual person. Is it male or female? How tall? What kind of voice does it have? How does it dress? How old is he or she?

When you have a full picture of your anxiety, it may feel good to name it. This removes your anxiety even further from your true self. What would be a good name for your anxiety? One person I know named hers Eunice. She liked this name because to her it was a little bit silly. The name Eunice helped her take her anxiety less seriously. When she felt anxious, she could say to herself, “Oh, that’s just Eunice. She’s a worrier.” This freed her to do many of the things that would have been difficult in the past – from helping her kids choose a college to advocating for herself at work.

Sometimes, when Eunice would get very loud and big, she would imagine Eunice shrinking, becoming tiny as a mouse. Other times, when Eunice got scared, she would imagine soothing her – like one of her own kids. By dis-identifying with her anxiety, she was much better able to take care of it – and ultimately herself.

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