Anxiety in small doses can be healthy. It signals when we’re in danger and, when necessary, pushes us to make changes in our lives. But anxiety stops being normal when it interferes with our ability to live life, when it leaves us paralyzed and affects our emotional and physical health in a negative way.
Dealing with anxiety isn’t easy, but here are some tips that might help.
Take on what ails you: problem-solve.
What’s causing you to stress? Consider processing your stressors on paper or by talking to a friend. Evaluate each stressor individually.
First, define the issue. A problem can include things like mourning the passing of the years, dealing with a difficult friend, suffering from panic attacks, or struggling with weight gain.
Next, what can you do about the issue? Brainstorm possible interventions. How have you successfully dealt with troubles from the past? Also, how have other people dealt with that same stressor? Ask around and do research on the internet. Solutions range from radical acceptance to making major life changes.
Once you’ve created a list of options, choose which option makes the most sense to you and do it. Make it happen. Remember, you can overcome fears and diminish anxiety by taking control of your troubles.
Forget the worst-case scenario.
If your stressor is related to something that hasn’t happened, i.e. worrying about the worst-case outcome, consider how likely it is that your fears will come true. Think of life as a spectrum: instead of the worst-case outcome, what is the best-case outcome? Now consider what is the most realistic outcome. Usually the it falls somewhere between both extremes.
Worried about the worse case scenario? Think it through. Imagine you’re scared of dying in a plane crash. What’s the best case outcome of being in a plane? You receive a million dollars upon reaching your destination? Sure, and what’s the most likely outcome? The odds of dying in a plane crash are comparable to being hit by lightning seven times. That is, about one in 11 million. You can rest your nerves. You might be a afraid of dying in a plane crash, but it’s very unlikely to happen.
Prepare ahead of time.
Being ready for what lies ahead can make the difference between a little angst and a meltdown. When possible, prepare in advance for upcoming projects and complicated situations. For example, consider the following scenarios. For each one, how could you lower the anxiety before it happens?
You have a work presentation at an upcoming meeting, and it’s got you tied up in frantic knots. What could you do? Consider playing out the meeting details in your mind ahead of time. This includes practicing your presentation and coming up with answers to potential questions and comments. Imagine the presentation is a great success. Do this over and over.
School is starting soon. The idea of sitting in a classroom without escape brings you to a panic. What do you do? Check out the classroom ahead of time, study it from different angles, and plan where you’re going to sit. If you can’t visit the classroom beforehand, work on imagery (imagining the classroom to be a positive place, good conversations, supportive peers and teacher) and relaxation techniques.
You’re going to an emotion-packed, potentially stressful family reunion in a few days. What can you do to get ready? Take out a paper and pen, jot down all the bad situations that could arise, and create a plan for coping with each situation. Can you deal with your aunt’s caustic remarks by ignoring her? Which family members can you safely spend time with? Who is the most supportive? Would taking a friend along be helpful? Consider planning an early getaway. Brain-storm ideas and plan ahead of time.
When it comes to dealing with tough situations, consider identifying places ahead of time where you can go to be alone and recharge, having soothing music available on your MP3 or i-pod, and keeping a list of supportive people to call.
Prevent stress when possible.
Keep anxiety in check by setting up healthy boundaries. Minimize toxic relationships in your life and limit the extent of “extra work” you take on at the office. Make good choices. Learn how to say no. Avoid things that don’t help the picture, like sweets, caffeine, drugs, and alcohol.
Build up resilience, joy, and self-esteem.
Increase healthy activities, especially those that trigger a sense of peace & enjoyment and augment self-esteem. Jump-start resilience with tai chi classes, yoga, relaxation, regular exercise, and meditation/mindfulness practice. Carve out time for yourself and guard it dearly. Find passion in hobbies, fun activities, and spending time with loved ones. Bolster self-esteem by keeping a to-do list and staying on top of important chores. Finally, choose carefully who you spend your time with and what you do with your day, as these have a profound effect on your well-being.
One of the quickest ways to combat stress and anxiety is to divert your attention. This isn’t always easy, but the trick seems to be in doing stuff, not thinking stuff. Can’t think of anything? Just in case, here’s a list of distractions:
- holding your hands under running water
- watching TV
- journaling about something other than stress
- reading something funny or soothing
- listening to uplifting music
- taking a warm bath
- going for a walk
- Trying out one of these relaxation techniques
- Playing with a pet
For a longer list of ideas, check out 150+ fun things to do
Reach out for support.
Maintaining relationships and having regular social contact is key to dealing with chronic anxiety. Support can include friends and family. It can also come in the form of church, individual or group therapy, online communities, and support groups. Alternatively, join a local group without a psychiatric focus (like a book, knitting, writers’, or hikers’ club), volunteer helping others, or go back to work or school (if you haven’t already). If you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, consider attending a twelve step program.
Now it’s time for trial and error.
We’ve reviewed many stress-management and reduction techniques. What’s helped so far, and what hasn’t? Yep, you guessed it: the next step is to experiment until you find which ones work for you. Remember, you might need to try each strategy multiple times before deciding whether it works or not, so don’t ditch something the first time around. What doesn’t work today might work tomorrow. Once you have a list of effective strategies, keep it handy. Next time you find yourself overwhelmed with worry, pull it out and practice.
Here’s an example of a trial and error list:
Note “preparing in advance” didn’t help the first time around, but the second attempt was successful. The next step on our list is to try Tai Chi and go bowling!
Contact a professional.
If you find your anxiety is all-encompassing no matter what you do, reach out to a mental health provider. A psychotherapist can teach you new ways to overcome anxiety, ranging from exposure, breathing exercises, and rewriting problem thoughts to Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). Alternatively, talk to your primary care doctor or psychiatrist about medication options.
Anxiety doesn’t have to be debilitating. Keep the above tips in mind and take control.