A healing practice for anxiety

Conscious Questioning for Anxiety

Book cover for Embracing AnxietyA practice to help you work directly with your anxiety

Anxiety has a purpose and a function, and it’s a really important one.

Anxiety helps you prepare for the future, and it acts as your task-completion and deadline-focused emotion.

Anxiety is an action-focused emotion, so expressing it when it’s intense can be pretty tricky — it can run you in five different directions at once.

However, repressing anxiety isn’t a very good choice, because anxiety will keep bubbling up — it has tasks to complete!

Anxiety can feel overwhelming or confusing, so I developed a focused Empathic Mindfulness practice for anxiety called Conscious Questioning for Anxiety. It’s from my book Embracing Anxiety.

Three steps to support your emotions

When any of your emotions are intense, it’s very tempting to turn away and ignore them, but you can make significant changes if you take three steps:

  1. Name your emotion with precision.
  2. Engage with your emotion so that it can do its proper work and then step back naturally (because you’ve completed the correct action for that emotion).
  3. Ask for help if your emotion won’t respond to you or step back.

The simple act of naming your emotions can help you calm and soothe yourself. With anxiety, these calming steps are very important.

The healing questions for anxiety are: What brought this feeling forward? and What truly needs to be done?

You can simply say: “Okay, I’m anxious, and that means something needs to get done. Now, what truly needs to be done?” This simple step will help you calm and focus yourself, and organize your thoughts.

In my Conscious Questioning for Anxiety practice, you turn toward your anxiety and identify each of the issues it’s responding to so that you can organize all of your tasks, concerns, and ideas.

This practice will help you ground and focus yourself again

You can start this practice by asking yourself (out loud) about each of the things that truly need to get done.

The word truly is key, because anxiety is so forward-focused that it could send you into a flurry of activity that doesn’t actually get you anywhere.

Your anxiety brings you a great deal of energy to help you get things done, but it needs your help to organize and focus itself.

It’s also very helpful to write things down. Writing is a way to physically express your anxieties, become aware of them, and organize them intentionally.

You could create a bullet-pointed list, or you could create a more flowing type of mind map, whichever works best for you. And here’s the interesting thing: Simply voicing or writing down your anxieties will help your anxiety step back and focus itself.

Speaking or writing out your anxieties is an emotionally intelligent action that helps your anxiety organize and focus itself so that you can settle yourself again.

With this quick and focused writing practice, you can access the gifts of your anxiety, identify any upcoming tasks, organize everything you need to do to complete those tasks, and support yourself and your anxiety.

This Conscious Questioning practice can help you support your anxiety’s specific genius, which is to help you complete your tasks and meet your deadlines with focus and skill.

How to Consciously Question Your Anxiety

  1. Begin your Conscious Questioning session with a clear statement such as: “Okay, I’m consciously questioning my anxiety now.”
  2. Ask your anxiety what truly needs to be done right now? Remember to write down the answers!

If you need some support, here are some helpful questions you might ask:

  • Have I achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • What are my strengths and resources?
  • Do I need more information?
  • Can I delegate any tasks?
  • Can I contact (or read about) someone who has successfully done this thing?
  • Are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • Is there anything I’ve overlooked?
  • Is anything unfinished?
  • What do I need to do to prepare?
  • What is one small task I can complete right now?
  • Why is this important?

When you feel done, end your Conscious Questioning session with a clear statement such as, “Thanks anxiety! I’m done now.”

When you’re done, do some of the tasks that you and your anxiety have identified, and also do something that’s fun, grounding, or soothing.

Take good care of yourself, and remember that anxiety is always looking out for you and trying to help you!

Also, this motto from our Dynamic Emotional Integration® community may be helpful to know:

There’s always enough time for every important thing.

Excerpted from Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion by Karla McLaren, M.Ed.

Note: If you do what you can to address your anxiety, and it doesn’t respond to you, please reach out for help from a counselor or healthcare provider. Sometimes, especially with a very active emotion like anxiety, we all need support to bring our emotions back into balance.


24 Responses

  1. Katrina
    | Reply

    I have been thinking a lot about this for the last week or two — but what I am struggling with and have been dealing with for the last few months is not anxiety, but fear. Flat-out, full-blown fear.

    My promise to myself for this year is that I am going to do my dead-level best to move into a dream that I have been carrying within myself since I was eleven years old. Of all the unrealized dreams I have ever had, this one is the oldest, the deepest, the most cherished — and the scariest. For most of my life, I told myself it was a silly, foolish, impossible dream.

    My dream was — and is — to act in stories that I write. I spent years dancing around this dream. I did technical theatre (mostly lighting, sometimes sound or props or set dressing). I stage managed plays. I directed plays. I acted in other people’s plays. I wrote plays — and sat by and watched as other people acted in and directed one of my plays. It was such a miserable experience that I promised myself I’d never do that again.

    But I realized, late last year, that if I do not pursue my dream now — if I do not take active steps to make it happen — no one is going to hand it to me on a silver platter. I can’t continue to sit back and wish for it.

    Moving towards my dream, though, has brought fears rushing in like fire-breathing dragons towering over me, haunting every step I take.

    I have been trying to move forward, one tiny step at a time, despite the fears — but I’ve been dealing lately with difficulties in my “day job” and my home life that leave me drained, so I don’t have much in internal resources to devote to my health (mental, emotional, physical) or my dreams. Or to dealing with my fears.

    On Thursday, I met with my acting coach for two hours. Most of the time was spent with him listening compassionately as I admitted my frustrations, my doubts, my fears, the disappointments and betrayals from my past, the negative messages echoing inside my head.

    He did not offer me platitudes — but he also did not accuse me of being silly or foolish for being scared. Nor did he accuse me of being egotistical or unrealistic for wanting to pursue this dream.

    Instead, he gave me a “safe space” in which it was okay for me to be afraid. It was okay for me to name my fears — and my dreams. It was okay for me to admit how much I want this dream, that there’s nothing else in the world that I want more, that there is no substitute for doing what I want to do, that no matter how scared I am or how foolish the dream might seem, I can’t not do it.

    By the time I got home from our session together, I felt clearer, calmer, and more settled than I had in weeks. Now, two days later, I still feel that way.

    For me, being able to name my fears — and my dreams — in the “safe space” provided by a trusted friend who allows me to be afraid — and allows me to dream — is invaluable.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Mori, thanks for your message! I’m glad my work is useful to you, Yay!

      And hey ya Katrina! Did I tell you that I acted in one play and went, “OH hellz no. If I gotta be on stage, I’ll be writing the material, thanks.” No one can interpret your words in the way you can. I salute you for going forward! Yay!!!

      Where are you doing your acting work? Are you in LA?

  2. Mori
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    I wanted to leave you a quick note and I wasn’t sure where to post it so I’m posting it here. I just read your book the Language of Emotions and I had previously listened to Emotional Genius. I really wanted to thank you for the wealth of information- more like truth- that you provided me. I’ve always wanted to know what you’ve explained so well in your book. I am really very grateful to you!



  3. Katrina
    | Reply

    Karla, I’m about 2,500 miles from L.A.; I live in central North Carolina. Lots of community theatre here, but support for the kind of creative work I want to do is tough to find. If I could afford to drive an hour or two, my choices would be greater, but my monthly income won’t stretch that far right now (though I am in the market for a better-paying job).

    So I’m starting one small step at a time, gathering around me the few people I’ve met so far who believe in my dream (thankfully, my acting coach is chief among them), and brainstorming ideas, great and small. Start small, knock on doors, try things … and see what happens.

  4. Mori
    | Reply


    I was particularly intrigued by the quaternity model that you explained in your book and found it a very useful. I was wondering if you knew of any other books you could recommend that delves more into the topic of the four elements that compose us?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Mori. The quaternity is a Jungian concept, but he’s awfully hard to slog through. The work I outline in the book is original to me, but it expands on the Jungian concepts. I added the concept of the fifth element, which is the fully integrated self wherein none of the elements are at war (for instance, many spiritual traditions wage war on the emotions or the intellect, and many intellectual traditions war on the spiritual or emotional aspects of humanity). I look at any repudiation of entire elements as a sign of real trouble in the tradition. I’m writing a post now about the current rage for spirituality over intellect, or vice versa, and I say oy.

  5. Simon
    | Reply

    This is a great tool, no doubt. I think we are ALL stressed out at some level, whether it is paralyzing fear or just everyday-stress.

    I think not only do we need to acquire skills to deal with anxiety and fear but also create a new society where there’s less triggers for stress & anxiety. For instance, driving can be a very stressful activity. We have cars that make tons of noise and if one is stuck in traffic then one is subject to so much noise and stress.

    Anyways, what I am saying is that a lot of stress we all feel is due to social constructs like bills, traffic, loud cars, noise pollution, environmental toxins, food toxins, etc. (which are all byproducts of monetary system).

    So while it is absolutely essential that we gain skills in how to ground fear and anxiety, it is also essential to help eliminate socially created stresses. I think that will be more effective in the long run. I guess I am thinking globally but we all have to these days. Our planet is becoming smaller and smaller every day.

    Thanks Karla for your work!



    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Simon! I agree that people spend a lot of time on personal issues when really, the problem is in the social fabric.

      I’m just not sure know how we help people wake up from that. My hope with the book is to help people get emotionally strong enough to start asking questions when politicians, the media, or other authority figures attempt to manipulate them emotionally. I don’t think you can understand emotional manipulation and social control if you don’t know what your emotions are or what they’re for.

      As I look around at media and politics, I see such a massive preponderance of emotional manipulation, I mean from the moment we wake up until just before we fall off to sleep. It’s almost impossible to get away from it. But when you know your emotions, you can get a little bit more hip to the manipulation. That’s my hope, anyhow.

  6. Simon
    | Reply

    Yes. I agree!

    I think it’s enough that we all keep trying to “fix” ourselves and put pressure on institutions to make this world a little less stressful. We definitely need a critical mass of awakened beings.

    I’m not sure how people can be awakened from mass social manipulation. I know too well of the horrors of media and political manipulation. I’m in the business of making films. It’s a circus at this point. LOL. 😉

    I do think people are slowly waking up. Sometimes I think institution will do as much as they can get away with, as if they are trying to see how much they can manipulate without disturbing the peace. But I think the peace is being disturbed now.

    Emotional skills and awareness are nice tools to have but sometimes we just gotta shout ‘Hey … mainstream media is totally lying!’ LOL 😉 We can’t always play safe.

    I don’t think there’s just one set way to wake people up. The ways are many!

    You do it with your skills and knowledge about emotions. I do it with my art. I see few musicians doing it with their music. I mean, we all have to do with whatever means we can and are experts in. Some people march in the streets, some write books, some blog, some vlog, some sing, some dance, etc.

    I still have hope that we can turn this thing around. I don’t want to underestimate the human spirit.

  7. Sue
    | Reply

    Hello 2011. This is 2014 writing in to say thanks for this post. I love reading about how others handle their anxiety. I have ongoing health issues that make anxiety a real feedback loop situation for me and so I feel like sometimes my body takes over and throws me into anxiety over absolutely nothing at all. This can be frustrating when I’m not able to “pin it down” to anything in particular. Is it pending menopause? My crappy adrenals? Is it Maybelline? Is it being triggered by my partner to something that happened in 1978 and when will I finally get past that stuff? Even if I can’t pinpoint it down to specifics at times I can at least be thankful for the skills I have developed in dealing with anxiety. And being compassionate to yourself is a major one.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Sue! Thank you for the time traveling message. I’m sorry that your Maybelline/hormonal/1978 situations are intersecting in a way that increases your anxiety. I deal with this in regard to depression, such that I sort of have to check in with people: “Is this a depressing situation, or is this me?” Compassion, yes! And sometimes, especially with emotions like anxiety and depression, getting some physical/medical support to help the body get back to balance is very awesome. I used to have anxiety spells that were actually traceable to an as-yet-undiagnosed thyroid condition, and they were like being taken over by something that wasn’t very focused or aware of issues in my actual life. I knew something was up, because anxiety tends to be pretty intelligent, though annoying when I’d love to procrastinate. The anxieties I was having were really very physical rather than informative, and it was helpful to be able to make that distinction and go and get some support.

      This may not be true for you, and I’m not suggesting that you have a thyroid disorder, but when I saw you write about hormones twice, I thought it might be worth mentioning. Endocrine issues are often implicated in feedback loops of anxiety and depression (and anger!), so it’s worth thinking about; we empathic folks have to stick together. 😉

  8. Sue
    | Reply

    Yes I agree – addressing the physical components are so important, especially when in feedback loops. I have a complicated physical history of CFS and pyroluria and adrenal fatigue and would be unsurprised to find thyroid issues playing a part as well 🙂

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