The Action Plan
Retrain your brain.
Anxiety is a part of life. Everyone feels anxious when they are pushed outside of their comfort zone or put under stress. However, the levels of anxiety that you feel and your reaction to the anxiety is what sets an anxious person apart from a person who responds to stress normally. It's important to remember this because it's important to remember that you cannot get rid of anxiety. We are humans and stress responses are deeply engrained in our behavior. Trying too hard to solve anxiety or put a total stop to it will often result in more anxiety, because you will inevitably fail. Instead, it is better to focus on overcoming anxiety, meaning re-training your brain to:
Take your anxiety less seriously
Focus on something else instead of your anxiety
Allow your anxious thoughts to exist without letting them disturb you and
Believe that life is still good and worthy of living despite uncertainties or negativity.
It's important to accept that "what if" statements will always exist and be available to you if you seek them out. It's also important to accept that the stresses of life: earning enough money, fitting in with others, and living up to unexpected challenges that arise, will always exist. But once we accept this, we can shift our focus from trying to eliminate these stressors to finding ways to deal with these stressors in healthy, measured ways that allow us to still appreciate and enjoy life. So how do we do this?
It starts with changing your expectations.
Oftentimes we think that being a little bit cynical leads to negativity. But the truth is, sometimes it's the opposite. As Alain de Botton explains in his New York Times most read article of 2016: Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, sometimes our unrealistic optimism is what ends up destroying our ability to be happy in our actual reality.
Allow yourself room for error.
One major way to avoid panic and anxiety is to allow the idea that "things will certainly go wrong" exist in your brain. This doesn't mean you should be apocalyptic and negative all the time, it just means that you should allow for error and disappointments in your day to day life, so that when they inevitably arise, they don't break you. Here is an example:
You find out that your mortgage payment just went up without you expecting it. You can have one of two reactions:
The panic thoughts begin. You do not have the money to pay for this, and you can't believe it just happened. What else out there is going to go wrong? How did you not see this coming? Why do things like this always seem to happen to you? How are you supposed to focus on work today?
Crap. Well, I'm sure I am not the first person that has experienced this. Let me hop online and see what others have to say about this issue, and call my mortgage rep and get more information and talk through my situation. There's got to be a solution out there for people going through things like this, and I knew this mortgage was going to be a stressor sometimes in my life, but I did what I had to do for my family.
You might think that these two reactions don't make much of a difference: you're still short on money, what are you going to do? The reality is that by staying calm and not allowing this problem to send you down a rabbit hole of questioning your self worth, your sense of control, and your sense of right and wrong, you are able to save all that energy to put it into proactive steps to fixing the problem and reaching out to people that will help you feel less alone in the process. In other words, you've already got a problem, reaction 1 just compounds it. Reaction 2 sets out to manage it without blame or panic. PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE: Think about the last thing you were feeling anxious about. Ask yourself: How can I change my expectations about my life to reduce my feelings of anxiety about this topic?
Step 1: Adjust your habits
Step 1. Adjust Your Habits
Many people search for mental and emotional causes and solutions for anxiety. But the truth is, no matter how much you work, you cannot counteract the negative effect of bad health habits on your body and mind. Some anxiety is rooted in the food we eat, the drugs we ingest, and our lack of exercise, nothing more. If you are serious about combatting your anxiety, you need to get real about:
Assessing your health habits
Working to make new healthy habits
Working to cut out bad habits or addictive behaviors
We all know that exercise is important. But for someone who struggles with anxiety, it is absolutely essential. Caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and cigarettes also need to be reduced or phased out completely if you want to give yourself a real chance at overcoming your anxiety.
Creating Good Habits
Breaking habits can be a very difficult and emotional thing to do. The best way to start is to begin a good habit that makes you feel empowered and that starts to give your body the positive effects it needs. For example, decide that you are going to refrain from social media and emails in the morning so you can take an energizing walk before work. Once you do this, breaking habits like coffee or smoking will be easier, because you will be in a better state of mind to do so.
You can also try replacing harmful habits like cigarette smoking with less harmful replacements like nicotene pills. This is a way for you to ease yourself out of an addiction without shocking your body. Here are some options for different habits you may be trying to break:
Cigarettes- Nicotene pills or gum like Nicorette
Alcohol- Kava tea or kava extracts
Caffeine- Decaf coffee or herbal tea (contains smaller amounts of caffeine)
Overeating- intermittent fasting; meditation; yoga
PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE: Exercise! At least twice a week. Then journal about how you feel afterward, linking to the exercise from last week. Try to slowly start to implement more good habits/break more bad habits week by week.
Step 2: Practice Non-Judgment
Practice recognizing your anxiety and not reacting to it. When we internalize our anxiety, we cannot separate it from our other, more reliable emotions. This is when we let panic overcome us, because it feels real and important. We believe the things that these anxious feelings are telling us, even when they aren't true. A liberating step to overcoming anxiety is being able to recognize that your anxiety is nothing more than an unnecessary reaction to non-harmful stressors and to emotionally detach from it. The sooner we can stop associating these feelings with peril and danger, the faster we can overcome them. But how do we do it?
Sometimes overcoming anxiety and negative thoughts means learning how to let them exist without reacting to them. This step takes a lot of internal work and it can be helpful to begin with a guided meditation for anxiety. It involves practice, dedication, and self-trust.
Practice recognizing your anxiety. When you begin to sweat, or shake, or lose focus on what you're doing, immediately stop and recognize what's happening. It may help to recognize it out loud by saying "I know this feeling. This is my anxiety. I know not to give into it, and to let it exist and pass without it derailing my day." Maybe not the first time, maybe not the second time, but eventually, labeling these symptoms will help to take away their mystery and their fear, and they will start to lose their power over you. PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE: PRODUCTIVE STRESSING Every morning, allow yourself 30 minutes of "stress time." Make a list of concerns that you have along with practical steps you are going to take for overcoming them. Then, make sure you check off those steps every day.
Why? This is a way of owning your anxiety. If you logically and practically write out your honest concerns about your life (which we all have) and then put the most realistic steps you need to take on your to-do list, you can tell yourself that that's it! You're done worrying for the day.
Step 3: Find the Source
Uncover your triggers.
Knowledge is power, especially regarding fear. To be successful in overcoming anxiety, you need to understand where it is coming from. One of the best ways to do this is to track your anxiety throughout the day in order to determine patterns. Keep a notebook and write down how you are feeling every hour, as well as what you are doing. You may notice that you feel very anxious right when your morning coffee buzz has worn out. You also might notice that you feel anxious after being around a certain person, or while doing a certain task.
Don't analyze straight away. Simply write down how you're feeling and what you're doing, without trying to connect the dots in the moment. Later that night, or the next day, look back and read it over objectively and look for any patterns you see. You might be surprised to find that you are anxious during dinner if you were caught in traffic before you got home, but not on weekends, when there is less traffic. Discovering patterns and tracking your anxiety in this way can help you to discover what triggers your anxiety and give you a feeling of control over your anxiety at the same time.
Once you know what triggers your anxiety, you can take steps to remedy it. Sometimes you can eliminate the anxiety trigger all together, like with coffee for example. In other cases, like if your boss causes you anxiety and you can't quit your job, you can put coping mechanisms in place to help you to deal with the stressor as best you can. PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE: Track your anxiety for a week, and then sit down each night and analyze what you find. Ask yourself: Did I find any anxiety triggers? What can I do to reduce their impact?
Step 4: Avoid Catastrophizing
Don't entertain your anxious thoughts.
For us to be successful in overcoming anxiety, we can't entertain our negative thoughts and allow them to fill our headspace. We can move past negative thoughts by considering these two truths:
Our anxieties and negative thinking are often irrational.
We are often far harder on ourselves than we are on others.
Knowing this, it is important to practice getting out of your head. When you allow thoughts to snowball in your head, it is easy to get carried away. For someone with anxiety, your husband not responding to a phone call might go from "he's just busy" to "he is hurt or in urgent trouble" within 30 minutes.
Write it out
For people who suffer from these kinds of grandiose, fearful thoughts, it can be helpful to write down your anxieties or say them out loud when you are feeling panicked. Writing out "I'm afraid my husband is dead because he did not pick up the phone" might help you to see that your fear sounds extreme or irrational. Writing out "I'm scared that she will leave me and I will never find happiness and die alone" might help you to see that you are assuming a worse case scenario and sabotaging yourself in a new relationship. This exercise is best for someone who suffers from irrational, obsessive thoughts, and who is able to recognize the irrationality of the thought after writing it out.
For anxieties that cannot be rationalized away, such as "I can't handle this work-load" or "I don't have enough money to pay my bills", getting out of your head might involve a different strategy. Give yourself the same advice you would a friend.
A good way to shift your perspective is to pretend you are giving advice to a friend.
What would you say to your friend who is suffering from a similar issue?
What solutions would you offer them?
What would you say for support?
Would you offer to help them in any way?
This exercise does a lot of helpful things:
It allows you to show yourself some compassion- We are so hard on ourselves, and switching roles and talking to yourself as a friend may help you to see how harsh your internal monologue has been and how your negative self talk is adding to your anxiety.
It can help you find new solutions- This is a good exercise to get your mind thinking about your problem in a more objective, detached way. You may offer solutions to a friend that you wouldn't think of for yourself because you are blinded by emotions like pride or shame.
It allows you to see what help is available to you- Imagining what help you'd be willing to offer a friend in a similar situation may open your eyes to resources that are available to you. If you would offer to attend therapy with a friend who is struggling with OCD, or if you'd offer to lend money to a friend in a difficult situation, chances are, someone may be willing to do this for you, too. If you do not have a friend or family member available for this, there are often social services available with people who can fill these roles.
Getting out of your head can also include simply going for a walk and changing your scenery, or seeking out a healthy outlet like helping out a family member or participating in an act of service. PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE: Try the writing out your fears or giving advice to a friend exercise, whichever you find more helpful. After the exercise, ask yourself, "In what ways do my concerns feel more manageable?"
Step 5: Don't React—Respond
Focus on your behavior, instead of an intended result.
A common problem of anxiety is that it can trap you in 'unhelpful' thinking. By being afraid of something occurring, we try to reassure ourselves that the opposite is true. When we fear that we are headed for divorce, we reassure ourselves with, "We are soulmates." When we fear that we we will fail a test, we reassure ourselves with, "Nah, I will ace it!" When we fear that we will embarass ourselves on a first date, our well meaning friends reassure us with, "Maybe it will go perfectly!"
This is a problem, because this doesn't really help us move past our anxious thoughts or teach us how to cure anxiety. Fearing divorce cannot be remedied by believing you are with your soulmate. Overcoming your fear of divorce can only come from tackling your fear of divorce and understanding why you have these fears and what they mean. Similarly, fearing that you will fail a test cannot be remedied by acing it. This just moves your anxiety forward to the next test. Fearing a date, and then hoping it will go perfectly, just sets you up to be yo-yoing between fear of the worst and hopes for an unrealistic best.
Create a more realistic alternative based in things you can actually control
Instead of responding to your fear of divorce with romantic, vague concepts like your "soulmate", create an alternative: "Our marriage isn't perfect, but I believe it's worth fighting for. I will take steps to improve our communication and give this marriage a more positive space in my mind." Instead of calming your nerves of a test with the hope you'll ace it, make a more realistic alternative that teaches your brain how to overcome test taking anxiety such as: "I will study for 3 hours every night this week and then do my best. I recognize that this test is important, but I also recognize that it is not the sole indicator of my future success." Instead of having anxiety about a first date and hoping it goes perfectly, tell yourself, "This is a scary exciting experience and I'm going to do my best to be honest and kind, and to have fun. If I can do that, I win."
Taking the Power Away from the Fear
These alternatives are realistic and take the "black and white" aspect of your stress out of the picture. They allow you to focus on your behavior, instead of an intended result. This approach helps you deal with chronic anxiety in a more permanent way, because this way, if something goes well, it doesn't give you the temporary high of avoiding your fear while still allowing the fear to exist. What it actually does is take the power out of the fear all together. PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE: Write out your "hope" for each anxious moment this week and then cross it out and write out a more realistic alternative. Make your realistic alternative include goals that are in your control and measurable.
Step 6: Manifest
When we have anxiety, a lot of times our brain has us believing that only one negative outcome is possible in any given event. For example, do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
"This relationship will end like all the others and I will be alone again because I'm unworthy of love."
"I'm going to fail this test just like the last time."
"She's going to judge me for this just like she always does."
"I can't give this presentation, I'll show how unprepared and ill-informed I am on the issue."
These beliefs can come from what happened in a previous experience, or conditioning that has led us to believe that we are unworthy of a better result. The biggest problem with this is that we often act as a self-fulfilling prophecy: because we can't imagine a better result, we don't take steps to make a better result possible, and things end up going the way we feared. Next time you are feeling stressed, sit down and visualize yourself succeeding at whatever is giving you anxiety. This could be:
Having a conversation that you are dreading and having it go well.
Succeeding at a presentation that is causing you stress.
Leaving the house when you are afraid to do so and having it go well.
Being able to visualize yourself doing this basically allows your brain to start to consider it a possibility, even a reality. It is as if you are practicing for the real thing. Visualizing how a certain conversation could go well can help you determine a road map for what you should say and how you should act during the conversation. It can also get the right emotions going for you to address the situation with a positive attitude. Visualizing can have a powerful effect on your brain, and it's important to visualize yourself overcoming anxiety and fear so that you start to believe that it's possible.
Though the ultimate goal of visualization is to have a positive experience that will lead to a positive outcome when faced with the real situation, at first it is often a scary experience. This is because as you attempt to visualize, you may be reminded of the stressors that are causing you to have anxiety in the first place. For example, visualizing a presentation going well will bring you anxious feelings about your presentation and tempt you to dive into the fears of the presentation not going well. PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE: Write out how you want a certain stressful event to go, and then visualize it happening the way you planned. Be detailed in your visualization. What did you say? Where were you? How did it happen, step by step? Start to really feel yourself in this moment, and feel the emotions of it going well.