Small Steps Toward Changing an Anxious Mindset

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

A colleague of mine once described a case that I think illustrates the concept of "mindset" quite well. A client of hers had long-standing problems with anxiety and stress. During one of their early meetings the client described her symptoms and the various treatment approaches she had tried up to that point. She went on to predict the steps in her assessment and intervention and even went so far as to forecast her likely response to treatment.

My colleague found this odd. Despite seeking help there was an underlying thread of cynicism in the client that implied she might not benefit from the very treatment she had sought. My colleague quickly realized that while her client was well-informed and understood treatment principles at a theoretical level, she struggled to internalize them. Essentially, her healing progress was being blocked by her own mindset.

Neurons that fire together

With a fixed mindset comes a stubbornness to change and new ideas, and so resentments and negativity become internalized. In my book, Overcoming Worry and Anxiety, there’s a section where I ask the reader to imagine they are a brain. It goes something like this:

. . . as you go about your business a worry comes along and so you fire up a few neurons to respond. But this and other worries go on and so you think, this must be really important, I’d better commit more resources to it. More neurons are dedicated to the task of worry and before too long your brain has established a stable neural structure dedicated to worry.

The Canadian psychologist Donald Olding Webb coined the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together,” to explain this exact process.

Steps towards change

We often assume that while we might be able to change or influence what goes on around us, our brain is a fixed commodity. Neuroscience tells us that our thought patterns actually influence the way our brains are wired. This helps to explain why changing beliefs can be such a struggle, but it also points us in other possible directions. If we are able to exert a more positive influence on the way we think, it is possible to make changes. The major step that is required is an acceptance that we are in the grip of a fixed mindset. Once acknowledged, we can begin the process of making change.

The alternative to a fixed mindset is a growth mindset, a term coined by Professor of Psychology, Carol S. Dweck. Professor Dweck is particularly interested in motivation, personality and development. She has authored a number of academic papers and books on the topic of mindset and is a well-known public speaker. Many of her talks are freely available on YouTube.

In order to achieve a growth mindset:

  • We should think of our brain as a muscle. Like all muscles it improves with exercise.

  • Growth mindset theory tells us that our brain can change, develop, form new connections and become smarter.

  • Learning and effort is important. Employ an approach of, “What could I do differently?”

  • Value feedback. Behavior doesn’t change without feedback. See feedback as offering new and different opportunities.

  • Persist. Setbacks and mistakes often happen when testing new ideas, but it’s also how progress is made.

  • Change “I can’t. It’s too hard. I give up” to, “I’ll try. I’ll persist and adapt. I’ll try something different.”

You may be wondering how long it takes to change a mindset. Well, there’s no straight answer to that because it really depends upon the spread and depth of the issues involved. But for an everyday example, I quite like this article by Keith Grinstead in the HuffingtonPost, who on recognizing he was feeling down and feeling sorry for himself on the way to work, actively set about the process of changing his mindset. Keith says to change his mindset for that particular day took about 15 minutes.

At face value, this may appear a little flippant, but it isn’t. Keith grasps the fact that it all comes down to belief and, as he says himself, “taking greater control of your mindset will have a significantly positive effect on everything in your life.” So, give it a try.

See more helpful articles:

Why Mindsets Matter

Optimism and Pessimism as Helpful Choices

Positive Pessimism