3 Ways to Reduce Anxiety by Working Backward

To reduce anxiety, most of us naturally gravitate toward what is obvious and focus on our anxiety itself. Looking for its cause, trying to figure out our automatic negative thought patterns that exacerbate it, and addressing all of its many symptoms seem like the best way to tackle the problem. These approaches do have a place, but over-focusing on the front end of anxiety (the anxiety itself and what perpetuates it) can keep us stuck. When we do this, much of our focus is narrow and on the problem. What might happen if, instead, we worked backward to reduce anxiety? 

What It Means to Reduce Anxiety by Working Backward

To work backward to reduce anxiety may seem strange, and perhaps even ineffective, at first. It means living life one moment at a time as if you were already free from anxiety's strong grasp. There's a counseling technique that helps people do this. It's called "acting as if." 

This technique is somewhat flawed, though. It can seem superficial, and it is easy to "yes, but" away. It's easy (and very legitimate) to think, "Yes, I could act as if my anxiety were already gone and do what I want to do, but in reality, I'm very anxious. I can't just pretend that it is gone." 

It's true. We can't simply pretend that anxiety is already gone and go on with our lives. It doesn't work that way. We can, however, loosen ourselves from anxiety's trap by shifting our approach. Rather than working on the front end (the anxiety itself), we can develop the back end (the rest of ourselves and our lives) even though anxiety is present. When we focus more on building what we want, anxiety begins to diminish until, eventually, we realize that while we may feel it, it no longer holds us back. 

3 Practical Ways to Work on Anxiety Backward

Think of this not as ignoring anxiety, avoiding it, or pretending it doesn't exist, but instead, as finally no longer ignoring your true self, avoiding what you want, or pretending that you don't exist outside of anxiety. You can acknowledge anxious thoughts and feelings and let them simply be there without judging them as horrible and trying to make them go away. Instead, you'll expand yourself and your world by focusing on your end goal: living freely and peacefully even when anxiety flares. 

Do these three things to build up yourself and allow anxiety to recede to the background.

  1. Define and develop your values. What is most important to you? What gives your life meaning and purpose? Anxiety often causes us to avoid what we really want in life, and we end up losing sight of what we hold dear. In focusing on our anxiety, we almost forget about what we value. Or, if we don't forget our passions, we don't allow ourselves to pursue them because anxiety is standing in the way. Allow yourself to reflect on your own values, hopes, dreams, purpose, and goals. Then, begin to pursue them even though anxiety is still there. This is a gradual process done in small steps. Every day, challenge yourself to take one small step further into your true life. 
  2. Ask yourself, "And what else?" This technique is a component of mindfulness. Each moment, we have so many things we can pay attention to, but the human brain can't take in everything. When anxiety is in control, it is in charge of how you experience a moment. When you're focusing on getting rid of anxiety from the "front end," it is still in charge of how you experience a moment. When you work backward, you notice how you're feeling in a moment, and then you ask yourself, "And what else?" What else is happening in this moment that you can pay attention to? What else is there about you that has little or nothing to do with anxiety? Over and over again, one moment at a time, expand your experience by asking yourself what else there is right now other than just anxiety. 
  3. Breathe and/or meditate. When anxiety flares, taking several slow, deep breaths can calm you by quieting your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for your fight-or-flight response) and activating your parasympathetic nervous system (to rest-and-digest). Controlling your breathing when you're anxious is helpful. What if you did breathing exercises regularly? Setting aside time every day to practice slow, deep breathing actually trains your brain and body. It's like exercise for the nervous system. The more you breathe slowly and deeply, the stronger the parasympathetic nervous system becomes. It will learn to kick in automatically and quickly to help you recover from anxiety-provoking situations. Sitting in meditation is one way to practice deep breathing. You can also pause throughout your day and do some breathing exercises on the go. 

One caveat to know as you engage in these three experiences: Anxious thoughts will bounce around while you're doing them, especially at first. This is why I consider this a backward approach. You do it even though you feel anxious rather than waiting to feel calm before pursuing what you value, expanding your attention mindfully, and breathing/meditating. It's not about having an already-calm mind or emptying your mind of negative thoughts. It's about teaching your body how to be calm despite anxious thoughts and emotions. It's about living your life and allowing yourself to be completely and fully you even though anxiety is still hanging around. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, May 20). 3 Ways to Reduce Anxiety by Working Backward, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

May, 23 2021 at 10:12 pm

Love the advice on developing values. It makes sense that focusing on your goals and the person you want to become in the future will help relieve the anxiety you are feeling in the moment. Also, it is nice to know that slow deep breaths can develop your parasympathetic nervous system. This sounds like a great way to stay healthy in many ways besides the benefit of decreased anxiety. Moving forward I am going to try controlled breathing and acting as if I have what I want for the next 30 days and see what it gets me for results.

May, 26 2021 at 4:28 pm

Hi Frank,
Trying these strategies for 30 days is an excellent approach. Any strategy takes time for you brain and body systems to adjust to and incorporate. Its the gradual, steady approaches (even going beyond the 30 day mark) that ultimately have a big impact. I'm cheering you on!

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