Four Questions to Help You Turn Off Your Anxious Autopilot

A therapist explains how to live a more thoughtful and less frantic life

Kathleen Smith
Published in
3 min readAug 30, 2021


Anxious people often come to therapy for answers. But as a therapist, I’m more interested in questions. Questions engage the front part of our brain, the part that solves problems and set goals. They direct us away from our fight-or-flight response, the anxious autopilot that chooses calmness at any cost.

If anxiety is running your life, it can be useful to have a set of questions that help tease out your best thinking about how to navigate the day. Here are four questions I ask my therapy clients to help them dial down their anxious autopilot and live a more thoughtful life.

  1. If you’re not paying attention to your anxiety, what will happen?

You can’t change change anxious behaviors if you are unable to define them. So sit down and describe to yourself (in writing or out loud) what it looks like when you’re stressed and running on autopilot.

Anxious autopilot could look like:

  • Avoiding everyone who makes you anxious.
  • Imagining everyone is upset with you.
  • Randomly attacking tasks without any plan.
  • Focusing on how others need to change.
  • Overfunctioning for your family or colleagues.
  • Focusing on the “what if’s” instead of today’s reality.

2. How would you like to be more responsible for yourself today?

You’ll notice that this is a different question than “How would you like to calm yourself down?” Because turning off your anxious autopilot will generate more anxiety in the short-term, as you learn to self-regulate your anxiety without relying on unwanted behaviors.

Being more responsible could look like:

  • Having an important conversation, even if it makes you nervous.
  • Prioritizing personal health over others’ happiness.
  • Being more objective about how much you can accomplish in a day.
  • Focusing on the facts and not the worst case scenarios.



Kathleen Smith
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.