Overall Attitudes For Handling Anxiety
Here are general mindsets for coping with anxiety if it’s a problem for you. The advice below will work best if your anxious feelings are mild to moderate. If your anxiety is more severe you may need to seek extra help. There are quite a few suggestions below, so pick and choose the ones that speak to you the most.
The points below are about tackling anxiety directly. You can also do a lot to indirectly cut off anxiety at its source by making broader lifestyle changes, which this article discusses.
Another huge part of dealing with anxiety in the long term is facing your fears, both of the situations which scare you, and of your anxiety itself causing something bad to happen in them. This article and this article go into that more.
What doesn’t work is avoiding your fears or trying to satisfy your anxious urges
As this article on the nature of anxiety explains, anxiety will either try to tell us, “Avoid this scary situation and I’ll go away” or “Perform these actions and I’ll go away” These approaches never work in the long term. It’s playing right into the counterproductive behavior your anxiety is encouraging. It’s like trying to cure a drug addiction by smoking more crack, because it makes you feel better when you do it. The proper way to deal with anxiety isn’t nearly as easy or immediately gratifying as giving into the cravings. Most people eventually decide it has to be done though.
As you get more experience with your anxiety you’ll be able to handle it better
When anxiety first starts to negatively affect your life it can throw you for a loop because it’s so scary and unfamiliar. It’s easy to get swept up in it without stopping to think about what’s happening or where it’s taking you. With more experience you’ll start to become more familiar with your anxious tendencies. You’ll also get to know the course your anxiety tends to take when it comes on.
Combined with coping strategies, this will give you more of an ability to address your nervous feelings. The first few times anxiety appears it has the advantage of catching you off guard. With time you’re better able to step back and see the process unfold, and matter of factly say things to yourself like, “Oh, I just got reminded of how I need to pay off that debt. My heart is starting to beat a bit fast. If this keeps up I’ll feel pukey and shaky soon. I’ll use approach X now because I know that usually works.” Just being aware of how everything is going to play out can take away some of its power.
Accept you’re going to be anxious some of the time
Everybody gets anxious sometimes. There are just things in life that are going to make us nervous. This is especially true if someone is just wired to be a little more high-strung. Even someone who’s become a black belt in coping with their nerves is occasionally going to have it get the best of them. We all have bad days, but that’s fine in the long run if they’re spread between lots of better ones.
Sometimes people can start thinking that they have to find a way to never be anxious again. They can get stuck because they believe they have to totally eliminate their nerves before they can get back to their lives. That’s never going to happen though. It’s just a part of life that sometimes we’re going to feel negative emotions. This seems obvious, but sometimes it’s easy to forget, especially since some self-help writing sends an implicit message that it’s an attainable goal to get to a place where you feel happy constantly.
Realize that anxiety is uncomfortable but harmless
One reason anxiety is such a problem for some people is that they (understandably) develop the attitude that their anxiety is horrible and intolerable and they must do everything they can to avoid feeling that way. As soon as it starts to pop up they go into high alert and have an automatic response of wanting to escape and get rid of it.
They can change their relationship to their anxiety if they start to see that while it’s uncomfortable, it won’t kill them, and they don’t necessarily have to flee whenever it appears. Learning to let anxiety be present is important to some other steps to overcoming it.
Realize you can be anxious and still function or enjoy something
Sometimes people start to look at their anxiety in Either-Or terms. Either they’re not nervous about something at all, and they can go ahead, or it makes them nervous and they have to take a pass, or somehow make themselves become completely anxiety-free before they can do it. Many things are worth doing even with some jitters. The benefits outweigh the discomfort.
When looking back at an event after the fact, how anxious you were at the time becomes even less important. For example, someone may go to a concert even though they don’t like crowds. Five years later when they’re remembering it, they’re probably going to be thinking, “I’m so glad I saw that band before they broke up!”, not “I felt a little shaky and nervous at times. I totally should have stayed home.”
Realize it’s just okay to feel anxious
Feeling anxious doesn’t mean you’re weak because you’re cowardly and you can’t control your emotions. It’s okay to be nervous about certain things. We all get that way at times. If you’re starting a new job the next week and you’re anxious about it, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling jittery, even though you logically know there isn’t anything to be scared of. Give yourself permission to be afraid. Having this attitude means embracing a contradiction; Anxiety is obviously better if it isn’t around, but if it does appear, that’s totally acceptable as well.
Figure out what is important to you in life and go after it regardless of your anxiety
This is one of the central concepts of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Take the time to clarify what your goals and values are and then commit to living them out. You don’t put your life on hold waiting for your anxiety to go away, because that will never happen. You accept it will always be there to a degree, but you do what’s important to you anyways. Like the point above mentioned, if you’re pursuing something you really care about then any nervousness that comes up along the way will be worth it.
Someone might decide that it’s important to them to increase their social circle. Maybe they also decided one of their values was trying new things. If they get an invitation to go rock climbing with some new people at work, and the thought of it makes them nervous, it’ll be easy for them to accept anyways because they can see how it aligns with what they want out of life. Or say someone has to give a speech to help raise money for a charity. They may not be crazy about public speaking, but they’ll do it because it fits with their value of helping other people. The anxiety might still come up, but it’s put in a totally different context.
Maybe you’ve met an anxious person who seems to follow this philosophy. They come across as fairly anxious in general, but they get by in life. They may even seem oddly comfortable with the fact that they look nervous sometimes, or that they may trip over their words around new people. I’ve even known people to casually tell their friends about how they get so nervous sometimes that they have to throw up, but they just go to the bathroom, do it, and then get back to whatever it is they were doing.
Get to the point where you don’t care if you show any anxious symptoms
This is easier said than done, but it can be very freeing and soothing if you can get to this place. Anxiety can have such a powerful hold on us because we’re afraid of the consequences of experiencing some of its symptoms. Someone may avoid meeting new people because they’re afraid of trembling in front of them. Another person may not take the subway because they’re worried about what might happen if they get nauseous between stops.
It can take a lot of that influence away if someone just says to themselves, “You know what? If I look nervous in front of people, I look nervous. If I turn red while talking to someone it’s not the worst thing ever, if I seem comfortable with myself otherwise. If I’m out at a dinner, and I get so worked up that I lose my appetite and people comment on why I’m not eating, that’s fine. I’ll manage. I’m going to do what I want to do anyways. I’m not going to let my anxiety dictate my life and hold these things over me.” Of course, if you can start to think like this, where you don’t care about the consequences of your anxiety, you’ll often be less likely to feel anxious in the first place.
Be okay with telling people you’re anxious
Another point, similar to the one above, is that it can help to get to a place where you’re comfortable telling people you’re anxious at that moment, or have a problem with anxiety in general. It takes away one more thing anxiety can hold over you, the belief that you can’t ever let anyone find out you’re feeling that way. Anxiety is universal, and pretty much everyone can relate and won’t judge you for it. Yeah, you probably don’t want to tell everyone the whole saga of your nervousness within five seconds of meeting them, but just knowing you don’t have to keep anything a secret can be a relief.
Most anxious symptoms aren’t as obvious as it feels they are
This point seems to contradict the ones above it in a way. I just said not to worry about showing symptoms, but now I’m explaining how many symptoms aren’t even that noticeable? Doesn’t that seem to play into the idea that people should be concerned about everyone picking up on their nervousness? I guess it is a bit of a contradiction, but sometimes I think it’s fine to hold two conflicting ideas in our minds at once.
Like I was saying, many people let their anxiety control them because they’re worried about appearing visibly jittery. Most symptoms of anxiety aren’t as apparent as it seems they are from the inside. Even when someone is extremely panicky, it often doesn’t look all that special to an observer. Just knowing this can take away even more of anxiety’s power.
Learn when to listen to your anxiety and when not to take it seriously
Anxiety isn’t all bad. It warns of dangers we should attend to. A smidgen of anxiety about a school assignment can get us started on it, when we’d otherwise put it off until the last second. Nervousness about a debt we have to pay off reminds us of the importance of not ignoring it, and that we shouldn’t frivolously spend our money. We all know anxiety can be very irrational as well. Our fears can be greatly exaggerated and unrealistic. We can find ourselves worrying about things that are extremely unlikely to happen.
It’s important to balance your reaction to your anxiety between these two ideas. On one hand, a lot of the things our anxiety tells us are totally unrealistic and exaggerated and can be brushed aside. These thoughts are the anxiety speaking, not the ‘real you’. If you want to take a stroll around your block and your nervousness tells you, “A meteor may hit you”, that’s something you need to dismiss.
Sometimes your anxiety is trying to tell you something legitimate, even if the way it’s presenting those concerns is a bit over the top. In these cases trying to make the nervousness go away may not work as well. This sounds a little odd, but here it can help to actually listen to your anxiety and acknowledge that you’ve really heard it and considered what it has to say. The way I picture it is that a part of your mind knows something is a legitimate concern. It sends your anxiety as a courier to relay that message to you. If you keep trying to push the anxiety away, that part of your mind will continue trying to deliver the information. When it’s satisfied you’ve actually heard what it has to say, it will breathe easy and leave you alone.
For example, say you’re nervous because you need to find a job. If every time you start to feel anxious you try to make the feelings go away, they may keep coming back. If you take a minute to listen to what your anxiety is telling you, and then go, “Yeah, I do need to look for a job soon. I’ll get on it. Thanks for the message” you may find it stops coming back. The important thing is that you truly consider the message and intend to act on it. In a sense you ‘solved’ the issue you were anxious about, so the emotion has no reason to linger. You didn’t literally fix anything, but sometimes just intending to get started is the same. Sure, this tip won’t magically work every time, but it can help in some cases.
Follow the ‘process’
When we’re anxious it’s sometimes because we’re worried about something that may happen in the future. For certain situations you may be able to calm your nerves by reminding yourself you’ll follow the ‘process’. What I mean is that for things like looking for a job, there’s an ideal process you go through. You update your resume, you apply for different positions, you reach out to your contacts, maybe even see an employment counselor, and generally try your best to find work. If you don’t find anything, the process has additional steps you can go through, like asking your parents for a loan, selling some of your stuff, applying for unemployment, or moving back home while you wait for the job market to get better. The process is designed in a way that if you follow it you’ll probably be okay.
There are similar processes for other situations like applying to universities, navigating a troubled relationship, or creating a social circle. You can reduce your worries by telling yourself, “There’s no point in fretting about what might or might not happen. I’ll just follow the ‘process’, handle each phase as it comes, and that should see me through.” You’re going to be doing the right actions, so you can take your thoughts out of the equation.
The defiant attitude vs. the calm, accepting attitude
For many of the attitudes mentioned above, you could take two approaches to applying them. Both seem to work in their own way. As I love to say, you could always use a mix of both. One way would be to take a tough, defiant stand towards your anxiety; “Oh, I’m starting to feel pukey before meeting my friends? I don’t care. I’m not letting my nerves push me around any longer. I’ll throw up in front of everyone if I have to, but I’m standing my ground and not avoiding my fears any longer!” This can be a very good way to motivate yourself, but some people might say the whole struggling and fighting thing is unnecessary.
The other route would be to take on a more Zen mindset. You calmly roll with whatever your anxiety dishes out, all without straying from following your values. If your anxiety interferes with your life you accept that and don’t expect everything to work out perfectly all the time. You have a positive, understanding view of your nervousness; It’s just trying to help, but it goes overboard sometimes and it nothing personal.
As written on Succeed Socially