Anxiety is an issue that affects a large part of the population, and has many different symptoms that can hinder your day-to-day life. When anxious, some will feel paralyzed, while others will feel like they’re in a constant state of agitation, with most falling somewhere inbetween. Now, why do many of us experience anxiety?
For most people, anxiety is an adaptive response; there is a situation that is risky in some sense that your body prepares for. Maybe there is a chance for failure, embarrassment, or it’s a situation that you haven’t experienced before - the unknown. This anxiety will act as a necessary stressor to push that person to think of ways to deal with this situation so that they’ll avoid failure, embarrassment, etc. This process is completely normal and can be very helpful.
However, there’s also an unhelpful type of anxiety. It still stems from the response to an uncertain or risky scenario, but the symptoms are extreme, or cause rumination, or both. This anxiety is unhelpful because it doesn’t enable us to deal with the stress or the potential situation in an effective way. It causes us to ruminate over what negative outcomes could possibly happen, or to blow the situation out of proportion and make us fear it much more than a reasonable amount.
So the question is, what can you do about it? Here are 4 strategies to cope with (and hopefully decrease) your anxiety:
Distinguish Between Solvable and Unsolvable Worries
When we feel anxiety, we often naturally accept it as reasonable and justified. And sometimes it is - if it’s a situation that can be solved by thinking it through, anxiety can help. But for many, the anxiety tells us to ruminate over unsolvable worries. Start to distinguish between the two. Ask yourself:
“is the problem something I’m currently facing, rather than an imaginary what-if?
If it is a what-if, how likely is it to happen? Is my concern realistic?
Can I do something about the problem or prepare for it, or is it out of my control?”
This won’t totally eliminate the anxiety, but it gives you some control back from the anxiety. You can train yourself to worry less about situations that are imaginary, or out of your control, because the purpose of worrying is to figure out ways to deal with it.
Challenging Intolerance of Uncertainty
As most of us know and experience, uncertain situations are anxiety-provoking to some extent. This is again because we want to know how to deal with any scenario we’re presented with. Some anxiety is normal, but becomes unhelpful when it causes us to feel paralyzed or agitated/jittery. To further decrease the power of the anxiety, ask yourself the following:
“Is it possible to be certain about everything in life? How is needing certainty in life helpful and unhelpful?
Do I tend to predict bad things will happen just because they’re uncertain? Is this a reasonable thing to do? What is the likelihood of positive or neutral outcomes?
Is it possible to live with the small chance that something negative may happen, given its likelihood is very low?”
Like stated previously, this won’t distinguish all anxiety, but it loosens its grasp on you.
Find a Short-Term Solution
The previous two strategies are more so long-term ways to change your thought processes when the anxiety becomes unhelpful. These are crucial to creating true change in how you manage your anxiety, but short-term solutions are extremely helpful too. The first step is recognizing when your anxiety is kicking in, with the second step being to make the conscious choice to use a strategy that works for you.
Distraction can be helpful to get your mind onto something besides the worry. This could be watching a movie, reading, doing a creative project, talking to a friend, doing an errand, and countless other ways to distract yourself.
Expressing your anxiety can be another way to release some of its energy. Write in a journal about your worries, talk to someone about it, let yourself scream or cry, or any other way that works for you. Many often feel like they have released at least part of the anxiety when they express it instead of continuing to hold it in.
Do something physical to give your anxiety less energy. This allows you to release some of that stress through movement. This could be something as involved as playing a sport or hiking a mountain, or something as simple as deep breathing.
Shift the Way You Think
Since the anxiety stems from how you think and anticipate a situation, begin to shift the way you think. You can start to do this by recognizing your unhelpful thinking styles. Follow this link to learn about 10 common styles: Common Unhelpful Thinking Styles
You must be able to recognize when you’re thinking in these unhelpful ways before anything else. When you recognize it, you’re taking away the rationale for the anxiety being justified. You’re telling yourself that this thinking is not only unjustified, but it’s also not helpful to you. Then, choose to think or perceive the situation in a different light.
For example, imagine that you go into class for school or into work, and there’s someone that you recently met and are slowly becoming friends with. They’re someone who’s usually warm and engaging, but today they’re cold and short with you. You might Jump to Conclusions by using Mind Reading (unhelpful thinking style) and assume that they don’t like you, or something that you said before made them uncomfortable. You then catastrophize by concluding that they don’t want to be your friend.
Instead, recognize this thought process, and stop yourself from mind reading. Think of different possibilities - maybe that they had a bad day, or had a fight with their spouse. This will not only decrease some anxiety around them not liking you, but might also lead you to act differently. You may ask them if they’re alright, leading them to tell you they had a bad day, which takes away the anxiety that you did something wrong, and further deepens that friendship.
Again, these are all strategies that are used to decrease anxiety, not intended to take it all away - that isn’t realistic. They all also need to be consistently used to have an impact. Making the choice to think differently once or twice and then assuming that your anxiety is gone will only lead to frustration and disappointment. So try some or all of these out, and remember that they may not work as well as you want right off the bat. It takes time to shift the way you’ve been thinking most of your life. But it can be done, and you can take control of your anxiety.