I've always remembered a story that a friend recounted to me a few years ago:
He was feeling anxious, sitting in a waiting room. Without even paying attention, he was jiggling his leg around and shifting in his seat. An older woman passed by him and noticed it,
"Honey," she said, "just tell that leg no!"
I've often thought of this story as a perfect metaphor for how we approach an anxious or compelling situation. Without even noticing it, we may begin to react in a strongly patterned way.
But we don't have to do that.
The first step is to even tune in to ourselves, to find the almost-automatic reactions that arise without our conscious awareness. Muscle tensions, fidgeting, sharp retorts, recurring conflicts - these are just patterns.
The second step is to realize that we have the ability to take control of our response to any situation. We don't have to go down the same paths we've walked before; we can choose a different response; we can just tell our own legs NO!
I've used this so frequently when I feel tension overwhelming me. I look for my automatic response and then I tell it to go away. And then I choose to do something different.
Even if doing something different means doing nothing at all.