No one is immune to anxiety, right? Job interviews, hosting family holiday events, public speaking obligations, writing blog posts for the world to judge... Not to mention, the heavy hitter fears like health issues, financial difficulties, and relationship strains that can throw us into pure panic. Truly, no one is immune to fear.
Weirdly enough though, some anxiety can be a good thing. A little test anxiety, for example, puts us right into gear to cram before that big exam. Likewise, the fear of humiliation and harsh judgement from our in-laws can motivate us to go to Target and impress everyone with our holiday dinner and fantastic decorating skills.
Anxiety or fear, like most emotions, can be helpful or harmful depending upon where they occur on our personal spectrums. It’s when anxiety grabs a firm choke hold in our lives, becomes a relentless voice in our heads, and a churning tightness in our chests that refuses to be turned off that we have a real problem. It starts running away with us and it feels like a constant state of unraveling.
The next thing you know, we’re avoiding people and events and shutting down to protect ourselves; or maybe we’re aggressively trying to control everything and everyone to wrestle our lives to the ground so we can feel safe again. Sometimes, we just freeze, and we can’t seem to make a simple decision to save ourselves. Anxiety can sometimes transform us in such a way that all forward motion in our lives comes to a screeching halt and we are consumed with protecting ourselves from eminent disaster (or at least perceived eminent disaster).
That’s usually when the therapist gets a call. When the fight or flight response is kicking our butts and we’ve sort of stopped living and just started “enduring.” And while we therapists will have a lot of helpful tools to offer in the coping with this “protection on steroids,” I’d like to offer some food for thought that might be a little help in the meantime.
A very simple concept here, but a very powerful one is that ATTACHMENT = ANXIETY. What this means is that when we are attached or invested to a particular outcome, we create anxiety. For example, if I am attached to landing a better job, and I’m measuring my success or failure by whether or not I get this job offer, then the interview I am about to attend is extremely anxiety provoking. Even though there are many variables that are out of my control between the interview that I give and the position being offered to me. What I mean to say is that I could nail the interview, but there could be a more experienced candidate in the pool or the interviewer may have a bias toward internal employees and decide to hire from within.
A million different variables, none of which I have any control over, can affect the outcome that I am shooting for, and yet I am holding myself responsible for the outcome of offer or no offer. Of course there is strong validity to the fact that if I don’t interview well, I likely will not receive an offer of employment. Which is a very crucial point. Because when we evaluate this scenario objectively, the only real control that I have over the entire process is how well I interview.
The trick to eliminating anxiety then becomes to DETACH from the outcome of whether or not I receive the offer of employment, and instead measure my success or failure by how well I interview. If I focus my attention and efforts on controlling the controllable piece of the puzzle, and keeping my focus on step one of the process, I can then evaluate my efforts fairly and think about what I might to increase the odds of me getting the outcome that I desire. This process puts me firmly back in control of what I can control and lets me release the crippling anxiety that comes with the uncontrollable.
“Oh sure,” you say, “it’s one thing when you’re going on a job interview, but what if I find out I have a medical issue? How can I manage that anxiety?” Exactly in the same way. You’d like to have a cure—but if you ATTACH yourself to a complete cure outcome, the variables that are outside of your control that help determine that outcome will likely cause you to have crushing anxiety.
However, if you are able to DETACH from the outcome of a complete cure and put your focus on step one of the treatment process that you have control over, (e.g., careful, proper nutrition and appropriate lifestyle changes during treatment) your anxiety can be greatly reduced. You may or may not get the outcome that you desire, but you have done everything that was within your power to contribute to the process. Remember, some anxiety will be helpful. It is anxiety that will drive us to focus every effort on controlling the controllable in these important aspects of our lives. Focus small and let go of the rest. Our psyches could use a rest.
So, to recap: Anxiety is a state of unease or worry, typically experienced over impending events or potential future events. Anxiety is experienced by everyone to some degree and is a natural, healthy way for our brains to protect ourselves in times of danger.
Sometimes though, anxiety can be pervasive. On one end, there are those who experience it rarely and it is easily managed while on the opposite end exist others with frequent, intense symptoms. The degree to which we experience anxiety can be visualized on a spectrum—though it is determined by the degree to which we are attached to an outcome.
Whether you experience anxiety daily or on occasion, there are several other skills you can implement and practice to manage symptoms in anxious moments. Below are 4 of the following:
1) Breathing can impact anxiety in either a positive or negative way.
Getting worked up and upset usually leads to short, shallow breaths. This increases your heart rate which, in turn, fuels the anxiety. When you feel the first sign of anxiety, take a moment to focus on your breathing. Taking several long, deep breaths will slow your heart rate. After 5 minutes, you should notice your symptoms beginning to improve.
2)Write about it.
Believe it or not, writing down thoughts and fears can actually help explore and eliminate them. Grab a notebook and start a journal. Don’t put pressure on yourself to write every day—just when you are experiencing anxiety or otherwise feel the desire. State your emotions such as “I am angry” or “I feel worried.” Write about thoughts you are having.
If you have a counseling session coming up, and feel comfortable doing so, bring the journal. You and your therapist can analyze the thoughts you have recorded to try to identify patterns or triggers. This can really help the progress you are making in counseling as it provides insight for your therapist and allows the two of you to tailor a plan to your specific needs.
3)Identify cognitive distortions.
I have a bracelet I wear often in session that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” I think it is a great reminder that the thoughts we often have are just that—thoughts. It is easy to begin to accept our own thoughts as fact and that can increase anxiety. Examine your thoughts. Try to determine if you are making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, or if there is supporting evidence to back up what you are thinking.
Key words to watch out for include “always,” “never,” and “should.” People experiencing anxiety tend to think in absolutes. If you find that you are thinking this way, discuss it with your therapist. He or she can help you identify and eliminate cognitive distortions which will assist you in managing anxiety.
4) Practice self-care.
You know the safety speech when you board an airplane where they say to put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others? Think of your mental health in the same way. You need to take care of yourself first and foremost. If you don’t, you will be of little help to those around you.
Get a massage, take a bath, attend a yoga class, pursue a hobby or find something else that you can do to care for yourself. We often put the metaphorical oxygen mask on others before ourselves. Proper self-care on a regular basis will naturally lessen anxiety. When we take care of ourselves, our mental health improves overall.
The next time you experience anxiety, take a minute to consider the things you can do to try to manage it on your own. If you find that your anxiety is interfering with your daily life—or if symptoms are worsening or becoming unmanageable, book a session.
Reach out for counseling services. We are here to help!
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