Don’t waste your life in doubts and fears: spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour’s duties will be the best preparation for the hours or ages that follow it.—Ralph Waldo Emerson
You may have heard the expression, “Weeds are plants growing in the wrong environment.” Weeds are uninvited guests, causing problems because they try to put down roots in the wrong place. The same is true of anxiety; it is a protective emotion (fear) which has grown beyond its appropriate function (to warn of impending danger), and instead sends out false warnings. Anxiety creates an exaggerated and unpleasant state of nervous behavior, physical issues (headaches, stomachaches, neck and back issues), and repetitive fear-based thoughts. It is a dread that something bad will happen in the future. In the right place, a little anxiety can be useful. “Optimal anxiety” provides the necessary push to do things you need to do, like slowing down when a car cuts too close in front of you. Over-optimal anxiety, however, prevents you from doing things you do need to do as a numbing, unpredictable fear shuts you down.
Anxiety is like an uninvited guest, ruining your quiet, pleasant home life by sabotaging you whenever you try to do something. Dealing with such a guest is an internal process of putting your attention and energies into what really matters—you.
Tips for dealing with anxiety:
- Mindfulness: Don’t try to ignore or repress anxiety—suppressing your worries is like pushing a beach ball underwater; it takes a lot of effort and when you eventually let go it shoots back up. With mindfulness, you can let anxiety be without either engaging it or trying to avoid it. Just pay attention to what you are doing—your breathing, writing, reading, physical posture. Being present and having anxiety cannot coexist because anxiety always takes you into the future. Mindfulness helps you relax, detach from outcomes, and focus on what you are doing in the present.
- Connect to Your Baseline: Exercise, walking, breathing, yoga, prayer, and mediation all help you get in touch with your naturally relaxed and attentive state. Like putting money in the bank, these activities create reserves you can draw on when you need to–like when experiencing anxiety, making it easier to self-soothe.
- Avoid Avoidance: Anxiety is a protective emotional mechanism which has had the volume turned way too high. It wants to protect you from things that are in reality not harmful. If you avoid these things you gain short-term relief but in the long-run anxiety increases. Recognize where you are constricting your choices out of fear and take small steps to move beyond your comfort zone. A stepped approach to anxiety, such as with public speaking or fear of flying, can be very effective. Also, remember James Neal Hollingworth’s advice: “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”
- Don’t Feed the Bears: Anxiety, like all survival emotions, manufactures evidence to sustain itself. If checking the news confirms how dangerous it is to travel, use mindfulness to be aware of your motives and focus on being present. A mindful check-in is important, as avoiding anxiety provoking things (“I’ll never watch the news again!”) can feed anxiety if done with the wrong mindset.
- Monitor Self-Talk: Anxiety’s companion is negative, derogatory self-talk—“You can’t do it; you never will. You’re not good enough.” This leads you to tunnel vision where you do not see your successes, skills, or abilities and thus cannot apply them in the present. By bringing your awareness to how you can deal with the issue at hand (in bite sized pieces), and how you have coped in the past, you can focus on more realistic, balanced thoughts. Focus on who you are and how you want to live your life. This is not avoidance of anxious thoughts but allocation of your energies to how you really see yourself.
- Recalibrate Your Sensitivity Sensors: Do a simple probability calculation—how many times have you worried about something (like a boss yelling at you) and how many times has it actually happened? This should help deal with the “What if … happens?” mantra anxiety uses to constrict activities. If the worst does happen? Recognize that the anxiety may be creating the very situation you want to avoid. And the result is not usually as bad as the anxiety tells you it is.
- Lifestyle management: Number one is getting enough sleep. The average adult needs 8 or 9 hours of sleep is to regenerate and repair cells, tissue, and body functions. When your body is rested you can deal with stress and anxiety more easily. If your anxiety keeps you up at night, try mindfulness, meditation, yoga, prayer, or other self-centering activities to set yourself up for sleep success. Watch your diet (especially fast food, caffeine, alcohol, medication, drugs). Exercising and ensuring healthy social connections are also important lifestyle choices.
- Talk to Someone: Talking is one of the best ways to put your anxiety in perspective. A responsive and trusted family member, friend, co-worker, or trained therapist can provide support and objective feedback when discussing how you are feeling. If you can’t talk to someone, try writing a letter, emailing, or texting. Using mindfulness to pay attention to your emotions without judgment can clarify that your aim is to talk about it, not to have someone take your anxiety away for you.
Anxiety is an unwanted guest. You may feel guilt or shame about having anxiety. These feelings are a result of its intrusive nature and are part of the mechanism of how anxiety protects itself. Feeling you are inadequate is the anxiety speaking, and once you can separate yourself from the anxiety and the judgement about having it, you can begin to live beyond its bounds. With mindfulness, the “guest” becomes less important as you focus on your life.
With the right skills, coaching, and practice, you can deal with anxiety and live the life you are truly capable of. Here’s to living a fulfilling life.