You would never meet me and think, this woman has anxiety. I walk into rooms wearing electric-berry lipsticks, flamboyant outfits (I’ve never met a ruffle I didn’t like), and tend to hold my head up and shoulders back (thanks to years of dance training). As a native New Yorker, I can be loud, bold, and assertive. I stand up for myself if I think I’ve been wronged. I actually love public speaking. And I have the social sensibility to know when to crack a joke at the right moment (or at least I think I do).
But behind my bouncy blowout is a head full of swirling thoughts. And I had no idea what was really going on up there until I worked with a life coach—Laurie Gerber from the Handel method—and did a “thought log” for her. For this assignment, over a period of a week, I reflected on everything that came into my mind for five-minute sprints three times a day. I kept it in a shared Google doc with Gerber, and we analyzed it later. Here are phrases copied and pasted directly from this exercise:
“I ate way too much during my husband’s birthday weekend and now my face is puffy. I am sick of dieting.”
“So stressed. I don’t feel like I am breathing. I hate this feeling. Just want to have a clear head. Trying to breathe and not clench my stomach. The second I relax, I feel tired.”
“Sometimes simple decisions drive me crazy.”
Looking at this now, months later, I can see how far I’ve come. Thankfully, I no longer feel this way. I’m eating balanced and my jeans fit nicely, I am tremendously less stressed, and I make smart decisions effortlessly. What happened: I learned how to get control of my mind, calm my anxiety, and be the better version of myself.
Yes, stopping and breathing plus daily meditation can diffuse frantic feelings. But I personally needed more than that. My journey involved hours of work and learning a simple mantra that saves me when old habits creep up. That seven-word phrase is:
I am the master of my mind.
If you can relate to these types of scenarios, keep reading to discover some of the techniques my life coach taught me for overcoming general anxiety.
Step One: Realize It's Happening.
When I first became aware that I was talking negatively to myself in my head all the time, it was a total mind flip. I had been invited to attend a four-person life coaching group session with Gerber, and she asked us to do some simple tasks: Make a list of your dreams, write out what you are afraid of, and analyze it.
Throughout this workshop, it became evident that while I envision myself as a “glass-half-full kind of gal,” many times I was dealing with an empty cup. Of course, I knew I had an inner dialogue running (we all do), but I didn’t realize it was holding me back from my goals.
The Handel Group has names for the unwelcoming voices in our heads: “the chicken” (the part of you that feels fear—“I can’t!”) and “the brat” (the whiner—“but I don’t want to!”). And when we complain about our chicken and brat feelings, we are “weather reporting” (telling the negative news). You can label these tendencies whatever you want—the founder of the Handel Group, Lauren Zander, told me she calls her mother’s voice in her head the Doom Fairy.
Once I was aware of how, well, mean I was being in my own head, I became determined to shut it down. Be honest with yourself: Are your thoughts clear and focused? Or do you ever get in your own way with doubt? If it’s the latter, just acknowledging it is the first step to releasing it.
To help me do this, I started working with Gerber as my personal life coach once a month to learn tactics and techniques.
Step Two: Memorize the Mantra.
When I feel gloomy, nervous, or paranoid thoughts coming on, I repeat this phrase to myself: “I am the master of my mind.”
This is a key principle of the Handel method, and understanding it can change the way you approach everything you think and do. But first of all, what does it actually mean?
“‘I am the master of my mind’ means that you can actually curate your own thoughts,” Gerber explains. “Most people think that they can choose their haircut, their outfit, their spouse, their job, and their groceries. But they do not understand that a uniquely human phenomenon is that we can choose our thoughts. No other animal can go, Oh, I’m thinking something. Pause. Do I like what I’m thinking? How is what I am thinking making me feel? Oh, it is not making me feel good.”
The idea is that you can accept or reject thoughts that don’t suit you. While you can’t stop them from coming, you can keep them from staying or resurfacing. She cites thinking about bad things happening to someone you love or worrying about tragedies on the news as examples of thoughts you can welcome or dismiss.
“You can’t choose that they enter your mind, but through awareness, meditation, and what we call thought logging, you can be aware enough to know when those things have entered your mind, how they make you feel, and choose to get on or off what we call a thought train,” Gerber says.
Basically, you have the power to say to yourself: I don’t want to think about this anymore. I am the master of my mind. I control my thoughts. That is power! Use it.
Step Three: Try a Thought-Logging Exercise.
As mentioned, thought logging is one method that the Handel coaches use to guide their clients to grasp the power of their own minds. In those 14 days of thought logging, I was more angsty than usual. It was definitely cathartic to be honest with myself and bubble up my pessimistic inner dialogue. But it was also frustrating to admit my feelings on paper and face them head-on.
“It is a really illuminating assignment,” Gerber says. “Especially people who meditate or do some work on themselves. People think they do know what they’re thinking. We think we know what’s in the salad dressing. We don’t. Until you do that comprehensive study, you really don’t know what you’re thinking, and that’s the fishbowl you’re swimming in all day long.”
Our inner dialogue has a dynamic influence on how we act. “That’s what’s giving you all your feelings and all your actions or inactions,” she explains. “All your results go right back to the thoughts you’re swimming in all day—that you’re listening to all day like they’re the voice of God.”
Reviewing my thought log, I saw how much time I wasted time on thoughts that were not necessarily rooted in facts. Instead, they were driven by emotion. And they weren’t helping me.
“What we find is that most people have the same types of thoughts over and over again repetitively,” Gerber explains. “They are almost comical. When I read mine, ‘it’s not fair’ or ‘that’s mine’ or ‘I can’t handle it’ were repetitive thoughts. It sounded like a very young child who is annoyed to have to share their toys.” She explains that what you often think is the truth is really the voice of the chicken, brat, or the weather reporter.
Rationalizing “I don’t want to do X” or “I don’t feel like doing X” doesn’t mean “I can’t do X.” Usually, you can do X. And if you don't, you’re the one standing in your own way. And if doing X means you get closer to your goals, then it’s worth it.
Step Four: Create Healthier Thought Habits.
As a determined person, I decided not to let my negative thoughts stand in the way of my goals. It didn’t happen overnight, but my heightened awareness made me hear them louder and slowly shut them down. That said, if you need some extra help, Gerber has ideas.
“We have a very simple system of helping someone avoid a thought train,” she says. “The first thing we do is, obviously, you catch it. So if you start to realize that there are three repetitive thought trains you get on, track it. Write it down to see what time of day, what time of month, what the triggers are, what happens, and what you do once it happens. Then you study the crap out of it. Just like you’d study investing or anything you care about. You study it and figure it out.”
You can also make a promise to yourself and a consequence if you break it to help you own your thoughts. “Every time I had a worrisome thought, I’d have to throw a quarter in a jar and throw it out, essentially,” Gerber admits. The life coaches in the Handel Group share their own experiences with their clients. She has told people (including me!): “If you’re going to start on that thought train, eat a piece of celery or get into a yoga pose or go look in the mirror and say it out loud so you really understand what you’re doing.”
I can recall being at a sushi restaurant with my friends and feeling triggered, about to weather report and emotionally dump my anxiety on them. Instead, I caught it and said out loud: “I promised my life coach and myself I wouldn’t talk about this.” I also didn’t want to get into a downward dog shape in the middle of the East Village.
“There is an immediate, artificial, sort-of annoying consequence that you pay when you do it,” Gerber says. “It underlines the awareness and teaches you that you don’t actually have to do that. You want to avoid the consequence, so you discontinue that thought process.”
Since Gerber is a pretty open book, she has to use this tactic at times. “Sometimes I still find it useful to admit when I’m having those thoughts and literally counteract it,” she tells me. “If I have the thought, I can’t deal with that, then I literally write that down and will respond to it and go, I think you can deal with it, Laurie. Take a deep breath. You’re going to be okay. And I log that.” While she has been a life coach for 14 years, logging, catching, and rejecting negative thoughts is something she regularly does to stay aware.
“It’s like watching a documentary on hamburger and saying, I don’t want to eat that anymore,” she says.