THE BLOG
03/27/2014 09:01 pm ET Updated May 27, 2014

Counteract Anxiety With Curiosity

Anxiety naturally arises when entering the new, unknown, or the uncertain. Most often, we try to manage the anxiety -- perhaps by giving ourselves a pep talk or practicing deep breathing. There is a better, easier way, though. Instead of trying to quell anxiety directly by "managing" it, focus instead on curiosity. Cultivating this attitude counteracts anxiety the moment it arises.

Positive Psychology researcher Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, describes how we can change our response to the unknown -- starting with a single decision to remain in situations and explore them, even when it might make us feel anxious or uncomfortable. This is also the approach that Harold took.

Harold and the Purple Crayon was my favorite book as a girl, and one I read to my children often when they were younger. It's a classic -- published almost 60 years ago about a curious 4-year-old boy named Harold who draws his world into existence with his purple crayon. He wants to walk with the moon, so he draws the moon and a path to it. He draws a monster to protect the apple tree and becomes afraid. A shaking hand draws water that quickly covers his head. He gets lost and draws many windows before he finds his own bedroom window, as he remembers the window always frames the moon, drawing his room right where he is.

He doesn't know where he's going, what he will encounter, or whom he will meet along the way. One thing he does have is his trusty purple crayon to draw out new possibilities.

Like Harold, Kashdan teaches that we can consciously make a decision to be curious, and that focus lessens our sense of anxiety. We do, in effect, hold our own purple crayon and can decide to draw novel distinctions. By focusing on curiosity versus trying to manage anxiety, we can generate more enjoyable, interesting, and meaningful social interactions. Rather than trying to stop anxiety, which is very hard if not impossible, we can instead direct our focus to being actively engaged, interested, and curious.

This curious mindset is what researcher Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset -- a state of mind that allows us to see new possibilities. It is also how Harvard Professor Ellen Langer defines mindfulness. Rather than meditative mindfulness, Langer uses mindfulness to describe our ability to see things anew, drawing novel distinctions in everyday life just like Harold uses his crayon to draw new realities.

Here are some questions and sentence stems to build curiosity in an uncomfortable or uncertain situation:

I wonder what would happen if...
How am I physically standing, sitting, or moving right now?
The thing I find interesting now is...
Who looks interesting to talk to?
Who is at ease in this situation and what can I learn from them?
I imagine this experience will be helpful by...
Right now, I'm noticing many new things, including...
I'm looking forward to understanding...

Ultimately, life is one big unknown. In every moment, we have no idea what will happen next. Boredom comes when we fail to see the new in everything -- even the mundane and ordinary. There is, then, no reason to wait for anxiety to actively practice curiosity. When someone asks you "What's new?" really notice what's new in this never-to-be-repeated moment, instead of flippantly answering, "Not much."