7 Words to Overcome Your Anxiety

Article by Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D., from Psychology Today

The powerful, calming question you may be forgetting to ask yourself.

Anxiety is driven by the reacting part of our brains. When you sense something that seems threatening, your body releases cortisol, the stress hormone that springs your body into action. This is called the stress response. For our ancient ancestors, this meant being on the ready to fight, take flight, or freeze (play dead) when facing scary threats, such as a fearsome saber-tooth tiger.

While in modern life you thankfully don’t meet any saber-toothed tigers, everyday challenges can still make you feel very anxious—thanks to your old-school reacting brain. Usually two words driven by our anxious minds—What If?—lead the charge.

Examples of “What If’s” in modern-day life include:

  • Work demands: “This new boss is so demanding and seems impossible to please! What if I lose my job?”
  • Time constraints: “What if I can’t supervise my son’s virtual schooling (or get him to in-person school) and be at work on time?”
  • Relationship pressures: “He is so nice but what if he dumps me?”
  • Societal pressures: “I am so scared about these tumultuous times we live in! What if this country falls apart?”
  • Information overload: “Shoot, I thought I saw your text, I meant to respond, so sorry this slipped through! What if things like this keep falling through the cracks?”

Your Reacting Brain Can Be Tamed by Your Thinking Brain

Fortunately, there’s another part of your brain, called the prefrontal cortex: the “thinking” part. The main job of the prefrontal cortex is to provide logical thinking to help control your emotional responses to stress so that you don’t get too stressed out and overreact. If you place your finger on your forehead, you’ll be about as close as you can get to touching your prefrontal cortex.

Your prefrontal cortex can rein in your stress response, slowing down the release of cortisol—if it determines that whatever your amygdala is freaking out about is not in fact a threat, or if it recognizes that the situation is manageable. This logical thinking part of your brain is very important for helping you manage anxiety and not overreact. This helps you make good choices. And as you’ll see, often when you feel stressed out, you have to consciously remember to turn to your thinking brain to gain back control from your reacting brain.

The 7-Word Question That Comes to the Rescue

Realizing how “What-ifs” can really get your mind racing, you can use the power of “What is the worst thing that can happen?”  to slow them down. The following sanity-saving activity is from my latest book, The Anxiety, Depression, and Anger Toolbox for Teens, but it is applicable for all ages:

Close your eyes and reflect on the “what-ifs” that you have struggled with in the past and those that still come into your mind. Fill in the “what-ifs” blanks below. As you do so, reflect on each “What-if,” and think about how it gets in your way. Now think in earnest about this commonly undervalued, seven-word question, which is your antidote to stress and anxiety: “What ‘s the worst thing that can happen?”

Here’s an example to help you get started:

What if I lose my job while trying to take care of my kids during this pandemic?

“The worst thing that could happen is I will have to look for another job, which may be more suited to balancing the current demands in my life. And even if it ends up taking me longer than I’d like to get a new job, it helps to remind myself about those times in the past when I have discovered ways to cope in really hard times. Actually, now thinking about this all more reasonably, I think I am going to proactively speak to my supervisor and see if there is something we can work out to make this current situation more manageable for me.

Now, fill in the blanks below and give the power of this seven-word question a try for some of the stressors you would like to manage better:

What if ____________________________________________________________________?

The worst thing that could happen is  _____________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________

What if ____________________________________________________________________?

The worst thing that could happen is  _____________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________

What if ____________________________________________________________________?

The worst thing that could happen is  _____________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________


Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)

Article by Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D., from Psychology Today


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