One of the Most Powerful Questions to Cut Through Anxiety (Relationships, Health, Parenting, Friendship)

When addressing anxiety effectively, we must attend to all four realms of self: physical, emotional, cognitive, and soul – or body, heart, mind, and soul. Attending only to one of the four realms is helpful, but it won’t help you heal anxiety from the root. By “attend” I mean we need tools to work with all four realms, and the tool I’m going to share today will help you on the cognitive/mind realm.

When we’re caught in an anxious storm, it’s often because we’re caught in a story that is powered by fear. By the way, I prefer to talk about the key areas where our wounds constellate as “stories” instead of beliefs or thoughts because a story is a holistic word that encapsulates our whole self, and stories often live in the emotional body as much as the mental realm. These stories can vary depending on the theme of the day, week, or month, but the common through-line is that they stem from a fear-based – and often trauma-based – place inside of us. And they’re almost always a projection, which means they’re pointing to an area of inner wound that needs attention.

I’ll give you a series of common examples of what this looks like when you get hooked in relationships, parenting, health anxiety, and friendship, then talk about the cut-through question that can quickly change the direction of your story.

Relationships

Your loving partner who adores you says something in an off-handed way that hurts your feelings, and you immediately assume that she thinks you’re stupid. You might come from a history of teasing or bullying, which led to the deeply entrenched belief that you’re “less than” in some way. If you were teased about your intelligence or grew up in a school environment that didn’t value your learning style and unique gifts, this will be a particularly strong hook for you. Your partner likely meant nothing harmful by the comment, but because of your history – and perhaps other factors like feeling tired or off-kilter in some other way in that moment – you couldn’t give her the benefit of the doubt and instead jumped to the first-layer projection.

Relationship Anxiety

You’re with your partner and suddenly you feel a pit in your stomach. The first-layer interpretation is that you don’t love him, and if you believe that thought, you’re off and running down the rabbit hole of relationship anxiety that says, “I have to leave. I’m making a mistake. There’s something wrong. I love him but I’m not in love anymore.”

Parenting

Your child is screaming about how it’s not fair that his older brother gets to use the lighter and he can’t. He screams and screams, and your blood starts to boil. (No, I’ve never been in this situation; hah ;)). Your first-layer interpretation – and one that is strongly corroborated by mainstream parenting culture – is that your child is misbehaving and needs to learn a lesson about how disrespectful it is to scream.

Health Anxiety

You feel a pain at the top of your head and you immediately assume that you have a brain tumor. Or you’ve been trembling more often lately and your first-layer mind says that you have Parkinson’s. Or you have chest pain and you think you’re going to have a heart attack. I could go on and on about how the anxious mind spins into overdrive when it comes to health anxiety. If you Google any of these symptoms, it’s game over; fear will find evidence to prove your theory and you’ve just poured a gallon of gasoline on your already inflamed inner fear fire.

Friendship

Finally, we come to the highly overlooked topic of friendship, one of the fields in life that is ripe for conflict. For example, a friend sends you a text and something about it rubs you the wrong way. You assume she meant something negative by it and you run with your first-layer interpretation. Of course, with texting as a primary form of communication these days, it’s easier than ever to misinterpret a tone and take offense.

How else could you respond in those moments? By asking the cut-through question, which is:

“What else could it be?”

The question itself automatically invites a different part of your brain to ignite, the part that isn’t bogged down by habitual responses. In other words, as soon as you remember to ask this question, you step into your adult/inner parent mind instead of the reactive child-mind, and the inherent curiosity in question sets into motion a new neural pathway than the one you’ve been walking down your entire life. As I’ve written about repeatedly on this blog and in depth in my courses, we’re culturally conditioned to take life at face value. We don’t learn to think underneath the top layer, to inquire about metaphors, to ask the cut-through question for intrusive thoughts, which is, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”

The untrained and habitual mind will always jump to the first-layer, obvious assumption when it comes to symptoms, thoughts, and feelings. Part of growing your adult, trained mind (and this has nothing to do with chronological age) is to challenge the antics of the untrained mind, and the fastest way to do this is to develop a habit of asking this question each time you get triggered or hooked.

The question also invites a higher mindset which gives the person or symptom in question the benefit of the doubt. Instead of immediately jumping on the train of thought that believes that the world is out to get you, this question naturally leads you toward a mindset guided by goodwill and a sense of trust.

Underneath the First-Layer Interpretation

If you could pause long enough to ask this question, or even go back and review the situation in your mind when you’re not inflamed, you might discover other interpretations to the initial thoughts, reactions, or symptoms, like the following:

You might see that your loving partner was simply making a comment that had nothing to do with you in that moment, and certainly wasn’t a reflection on your intelligence.

You might remember that having a pit in your stomach is a common anxiety response, and when you ask,”What else could it be other than evidence that I’m with the wrong partner?” you might be able to say, “The pit means I’m scared. I’m so scared to love this deeply. I’m scared to be vulnerable. I’m scared I’m going to get hurt.”

When you child is screaming and you ask, “What else could it be?” it could give you a long enough pause to remember that anger is a defensive response, and that there is almost always pain underneath the anger. This moment of compassion might calm your blood and lead you toward your child, where you would ask him to sit next to you on the couch and hold him until the anger softened into tears and poured down his cheeks and he said through his crying, “I hate being younger and smaller. It’s not fair.”

When you feel unusual physical symptoms and your mind wants to jump on the fear-train as those of us prone to anxiety are wont to do, when you ask,”What else could it be?” you might be able to calm the fear long enough to say, “My headache is probably because I didn’t eat enough today” or “My trembling is probably because I didn’t grieve enough today.” I shared my fear-based response to a symptom I was having over the summer and my exploration of what else it could be in this post.

And when your friend sends an odd text and you ask the cut-through question you might land in a different, more mature part of your mind, one that can attend to the automatic response of hurt but can explore it without falling down the chute of despair.

One moment at a time. One thought at a time. One question at a time. This is how you question the current patterns and set yourself on a new trajectory of growth and healing. This is how you challenge not only the culturally-entrained response but the knee-jerk, fear-based response. This is how we grow consciousness, all together, tumbling through the amorphously gray and mysterious human experience, teaching our minds to orient toward more and more awareness and light.

22 comments to One of the Most Powerful Questions to Cut Through Anxiety (Relationships, Parenting, Health, Friendship)

  • agnes

    AMAZING. I needed it spelling out. Thank you! xxx

  • Courtney

    I asked Sheryl to take me off of the e-board because I was using it constantly as a crutch of validation and it was making the anxiety worse (which of course she clearly states, but i didn’t listen). I just want to say that this course helped me immensely. I am still with my partner, and am SO glad i did not run or give up. My head has quieted. I cannot believe it. I never thought that it would EVER get better. I am in tears as I write this because I truly feel safe and protected. I am so grateful for Sheryl’s course, and for my fellow sufferers.

    I look forward to reading this blog posts every week- and this one was awesome as they all are.

    I guess I just felt inspired to say something, and to share that although my work is VERY far from done, I can say that I have had a major shift. THANK YOU SHERYL.

    • It’s so good to hear from you, Courtney, and I’m delighted that you trusted yourself enough to make the request to be removed from the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety forum and that your head has quieted. Keep doing the work and it will continue to work on you. Sending blessings! x

  • Samantha01

    Hi Sheryl,

    Just wanting to make sure I’m understanding this correctly: So for the first example of relationships, where the partner says something off-handed…are you saying that the thought “I don’t love him” is a first layer projection/interpretation to the anxiety brought on by the partner’s comment? i.e., rather than acknowledging that their comment brought up fears around vulnerability, we jump to “I don’t love him”, or something along those lines, as a way to protect ourselves?

  • Sara

    Always well timed as usual, Sheryl. I was just talking to my partner yesterday about how I feel like this is a season of changing the negative messages and stories I’ve had for a long time around love. One of the biggest ones is around playing. My partner is sweet, playful, and kid like, which is what I’ve always wanted. Yet coming from a hs of trauma and abuse I had a lot of bad experiences when it came to someone showing me playful emotions. As a kid I learned to play by myself but didn’t feel safe when others tried to play back with me.. For the longest time I’ve found myself irritated with my partnerthinking, “you don’t take me seriously” or “you’re making fun of me.” This has really affected my enjoyment of him as these lines have run my inner world for so long.BUT I’ve started challenging them and am learning to change the scripts in my head. Sometimes I’ll even ask him, “can you tell me what that emotion meant?” And I’m thankful he has been so patient and supportive to explain what play looks like to me. And I notice the more I change these lines the more peace that comes from believing truth and seeing things differently. It’s a slow process tho and my feelings aren’t changing over night. I still often feel like that scared little girl learning to receive love. But I know that with time, daily practice, and healing, the work begins to take root and the feelings of love and like surface more.

    • You’re beautifully and bravely describing the process of working through a powerful projection: naming it, becoming curious about it, owning it as yours, challenging it, and exploring the painful feelings embedded inside of it. Not for the faint of heart!

      • Sara

        Thanks, Sheryl 🙂 Yes. It is hard work and I appreciate that the number one for me reminder is owning it as mine! Especially when the projection feels so real its been difficult to take responsibility for it. However, I’m realizing that the trauma distorted ALOT of things and affected the safety i felt in a lot of situations where i really was safe, but didn’t feel that way. Its been hourly and at times minute by minute work to undo the work the trauma did in how it distorted the way I saw people’s emotions towards me. No one can do the work for me though and the little girl inside me deserves to know and experience the goodness she missed for so long.

        Also, I agree with Courtney about taking time away from the blog or forums. Its easy to find yourself looking for reassurance rather than doing your own work. I’ve lessened my time to searching for answers and am learning to find them from God and inside myself and sit with the truth. As always, appreciate your work and beautiful insights you share with us all, Sheryl!

        • Yes, it truly is a daily, hourly, and sometimes minute-by-minute process of attending to the distortions and the hurt places inside. x

          • Sara

            Yeah. I know I’m posting a lot, I just feel like I’ve hit some major wounded roots. Realizing that the root of a lot of the pain has been these young childhood feelings that felt like nothing was in my control and that no one cares about me. The only thing I could control was how I defended myself. So I became defensive and learned to see the worst in anyone who wanted to get close to me. Today I comforted that little girl who feels scared and out of control. Letting her know her sadness is okay and how she feels is okay. She will be taken care of, she will be loved, and the loving adult inside of me and God are going to be there and walk with her. I tear up as I write this but wow. What a revelation.

  • Jennifer

    This article is great. It reminds me of a tool I try to remember to use when I’m in an anxious, angry, or depressed state. It’s hard to remember to use it, but when I do, it really helps. I ask myself, what are the facts and what is the story that I am telling myself about the facts? Could there be a different story?

  • MIS84

    I love this post, I really do. I found your work years ago when I was first struck with relationship anxiety. Well, as predicted, that anxiety transformed into sexual orientation, friendship, health, and general life anxiety at whim. This question is so foundational to what helps me pull myself out of each of those episodes regardless of the focus. It’s such a keen reminder that we just don’t know anything with 100% certainty, and frankly, we’re not supposed to.

    I’m in a new relationship now (my last one had some red flags that Sheryl actually helped me identify, so hopefully not spiking anyone with that :)) and my relationship anxiety has flared up at the exact same time as it did in every other relationship. But the question, what else could it be, is still so fundamentally important. In my case, I’m moving to another country in two weeks (planned before I met my bf) and I am just terrified that it’s going to rip us apart. Truth be told, it might, but it doesn’t have to. I have to live the experience to find out the answer, and that’s exactly what I plan to do.

    Thanks s always, Sheryl.

    • It’s so good to hear from you, and I’m pleased to hear that you’re making these essential connections and relying on your tools. It sounds like you’re facing your fears head on, which is the only way ;).

  • onedayatatime

    Hi Sheryl, I am wondering about how to truly decipher it’s ME vs. something else in relation to a job? I know you do touch on this; I find that since I have gone into nursing (even in school) I found it very stressful and never REALLY enjoyed. I like the concept of helping people but I am now feeling like I want to run away. I want out NOW, I feel drained. My stuff absolutely plays into it of course however, I am so back and forth on focusing on working on me vs. finding a different job. I’ve changed my workplace and role about 5 times (over 8 years) but it’s always been in the capacity of a nurse or in a hospital. I have already even said out loud to people that I want something different, I don’t see it being in nursing, but I don’t know what the “next” path would look like. I struggle with the fantasy of a calling (I don’t identify with a “calling” I would just love to pursue). I feel like I am done trying to struggle and push through working on “me” to be able to “cope” with my job but I am doubting if this is valid. Is that just a cop out? I really really have put in lots of effort to work on me. I still do but I have trouble with being consistent. Work usually just feels so draining. But I constantly ask myself; if I was just better at coping and self-care would it not feel so draining? Then would I find it rewarding? Yet, I don’t want to have to keep “working harder” to cope at the job, I don’t feel a pull that my job is worth the challenge. I definitely feel drained and checked out after my day.

    I don’t know if this is a “grass is greener” approach to finding a different job and feeling better? I know there are things that come up for me with my job that I have tendency to want to runaway from instead of work on but I also can’t imagine the rest of my life in nursing, I think I am a bit ashamed to admit it because I feel like I am not good enough to manage the role. I am bringing it here because I have been leaning towards the perspective that this is not suited for “me” and my personality, but again so much doubt. Work feels like the biggest stressor and drainer right now yet I know I can become “hyper focused” on figuring this out just like anything with anxiety.

  • Onedayatatime

    I think I am ultimately looking for reassurance that it can make sense that my job is hindering me and that potentially finding a different path can give me more “space to breathe”? I cannot imagine doing most nursing jobs and having the energy to truly focus on parenting and nurturing kids. Although, my partner and I have already discussed that if we can be financially stable we would both like for me to be home full time with kids and so then I wonder if I should pursue any type of other career anyways (but i need to in income at this point).

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