How to Respond to Anxiety When It Says 'You Can't Do That!'

How do you respond to anxiety when it says you can't do something? Do you believe anxiety? If so, here's how to respond when anxiety says "you can't do that."

When anxiety says you can’t _____ (fill in the blank with whatever it is you think you can’t do), it’s frustrating, and it can be tempting to give up. Why bother trying to move forward when anxiety is screaming at you, attempting to convince you that you can’t do something? There are important reasons we should bother moving forward despite being anxious and believing we can’t do something: We are living our lives, we have goals, passions, and purpose, and anxiety is wrong (12 Lies Anxiety Tells You). You can respond to anxiety to take away its voice. You can respond when anxiety says you can't do something.

Perhaps you’ve observed this phenomenon in an argument (whether you are engaged in the argument or are witnessing others): When two people have different opinions in a heated discussion, each tends to speak louder in an attempt to force the other person to see his/her point of view. Anxiety does this. It wants to convince you that you can’t achieve a goal, or sometimes it shouts that bad things are going to happen to you or to people you care about and you can’t do anything about it.

Don't Respond to Anxiety on Its Terms

When two people who are arguing both begin to shout, there’s a lot of noise and frustration but not much else. Shouting at people doesn’t make them accept your message. Likewise, when anxiety is shouting at you, there’s a lot of noise and frustration, but you most certainly don’t have to accept its message.

It can be tempting to respond to anxiety with more arguing and shouting, but anxiety probably won’t listen to you. In fact, anxiety might laugh and settle in for a long ride. When you’re stuck in argument mode, you really are stuck. One of the following two things is likely to happen:

  1. You focus so much on the anxious thoughts of failure or disaster that you aren’t focusing on your goals and desires.
  2. Anxious thoughts keep bombarding you because arguing doesn’t work, so you accept them as truthful and give up.

Respond to Anxiety the Right Way

When anxiety tells you that you can’t do something, rather than shouting back or giving up, try these actions instead:

  1. Talk to yourself rather than to your anxiety. You don’t need to convince your anxious thoughts that you are capable, you only need to convince yourself.
  2. Do one thing right now that shows you that yes, you can.
  3. Create a vision board of your goals to keep your greater purpose in focus.
  4. Keep a running list of your strengths and positive actions you take and review it either before bed or right as you awaken in the morning—or both.
  5. When you catch those anxious thoughts getting in your way, breathe deeply and take action anyway.

Anxiety is that voice that screams, “You can’t.” Your strengths, purpose, hopes, dreams, and actions are that steady part of who you are that whispers, “You can and you are.”

APA Reference
NCC, T. (2017, April 14). How to Respond to Anxiety When It Says 'You Can't Do That!', HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, June 20 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

April, 20 2017 at 2:31 pm
Hi Cory,
Positive talk isn't just fluff! It's incredibly powerful. I use positive talk, too. Thanks for sharing this with everyone!
Cory Clark
April, 18 2017 at 5:58 pm
Great post. When my anxiety tries to discourage me, I have learned to talk positively to myself. It has made a huge difference in trying to reach my goals.

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