Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives, even those who aren’t typically anxious. Anxiety becomes problematic when you feel like you cannot manage it, and that of course, means something different for everyone.
- Is anxiety affecting your day-to-day life?
- Do you feel overwhelmed by anxious thoughts?
- Do you fixate on things you know you shouldn’t worry about but can’t help it?
The first step to learning how to manage stress, anxiety and other mental health challenges is acknowledging and accepting your feelings. Only then can you implement the ten strategies outlined here that I use regularly with my coaching clients to process and work through those anxious moments.
- Identify the exact thoughts or situations that worry you. It’s necessary to break the situation down to the bare core. For example, let’s say you have generalized anxiety about going to social events for your job. Take that event and list everything you are thinking about it. What are you saying to yourself? It could be something as simple as I don’t know what the appropriate attire is for the event. You wonder: what if I wear a tie and no one else does? You think: I’ll look like an idiot.
Write down everything you say to yourself when you think about going to an event. Then, draw a line right next to those thoughts to create a second column. Here, list any reasonable alternatives. For example, some people will notice I’m wearing a tie, but it won’t matter next week. There’s nothing major that will come from this perceived faux pas. Then, make a third column for a Pollyanna version: everyone will think I look great no matter what. In this exercise, you are processing the situation with a flexible brain. Being able to look at situations from multiple perspectives is an essential skill to build to be able to manage anxiety, as well as to build your emotional intelligence.
2. Start journaling. It’s no secret there are numerous benefits to journaling. Keeping a record of personal thoughts and feelings is particularly helpful in supporting your mental health. Research shows it can:
- Reduce anxiety
- Break the pattern of obsessive thinking
- Improve self-awareness
- Regulate your emotions
- Boost physical health including improved immune defense, lowered blood pressure, improved lung and liver function, better moods, reduced stress-related visits to the doctor and more
Not sure how to get started journaling? Here are some tips:
- Pick a time of day that you can be most consistent with to write in your journal but understand that flexibility will be needed depending on the day.
- Start small. Write for just a few minutes on whatever subject you want.
- Don’t edit. Don’t worry about spelling and punctuation – you are not being graded on your entries!
- Choose a method that works for your lifestyle. Use a journal app, type on your laptop, write in a notebook, record a voice message on your phone, etc.
3.Think about the worst-case scenario that could result from your anxious thoughts. Put your thought into perspective. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Will this really matter when you are at the end of your life? Again, it’s all about your capacity to pause and look at your worry from a different perspective; understanding that the anxiety you are feeling in the moment is not permanent or life-changing.
4. Ask yourself questions. Sometimes if we pause and reflect on the situation more deeply, it can make it seem less dire. Ask yourself:
- Have I ever dealt with anything like this in the past? If so, how did I deal with it? And was it effective?
- How much is this really going to affect my life a month from now, or a year from now?
- Do I know anyone who has coped with something like this? What did they do? How did they deal with it?
- Do I know anyone who I can turn to who could support me, who could process this situation with me?
- Can I think of a creative new possibility that would result from the challenge that’s in front of me?
- What can I learn from putting myself in this situation?
5. Shift out of victim mode. Someone with a victim mentality has an external locus of control. They do not believe they control their own destiny and instead deny having any control over their success or failure. On the other hand, someone with an internal locus of control believes that their own actions contribute to their success and failure. If you can recognize in the moment of anxiety that you are likely experiencing the scenario from a victim mentality, you can switch your thinking pattern. Instead of thinking why is this happening to me, ask yourself instead, what do I need to get through this? Look for the opportunity in the situation. Use the fill-in-the-blank question: How can I….? It’s a great way to start a question because it puts you in the framework to solve rather than ruminate.
6. Create a “worry” box. This may seem like an elementary solution, but sometimes the basics work best! For those individuals who constantly worry, I tell them to get a small box, cut a slit in the top of the box, tape it up so you can’t open it, and write the start date on the outside. Every time you start to worry about something, write down the worry on a tiny piece of paper and put it in the box. Just keep doing this over and over. I’ve had clients do this for as long as six months, and sometimes they must have two boxes! Then they come into our coaching session with the box(es). We dump out everything from the box that they’ve worried about in the last six months, and we read each one aloud. We categorize them in piles: did this happen and did this not happen. The pile that didn’t happen is usually 100%. On those rare occasions that a worry did happen, it’s never been more than one or two. That’s because most of the things we worry about don’t happen.
A research study by Cornell University shows that about 85% of what people worried about never happened. They also revealed that when it came to the 15% of worries that did in fact happen, 79% of the time, people handled the worries better than they expected or they learned something useful from the experience.
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” ~Mark Twain
7. Breathe. I say it all the time to my clients: deep diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most effective ways to bring down anxiety in the moment. If you find yourself becoming anxious, take a time out and focus on your breath.
Here are the steps for diaphragmatic breathing:
- Take a big, deep breath. Make sure your belly is getting bigger. If your chest is getting bigger and your belly smaller, you are doing it incorrectly.
- Hold it while you silently count for six seconds.
- Release the breath slowly.
- Repeat as needed.
8. Face the discomfort. Anxiety can affect us physically, so it’s important to be able to identify where you are feeling it in your body. Is your chest feeling tight? Does your head feel like it’s going to explode? Let yourself experience the sensations by focusing on the parts of your body that feel discomfort. Focus in on it, breathe through it, and re-challenge yourself to face the discomfort. Facing the discomfort and sitting with it also helps prevent panic attacks. Panic attacks are the accumulation of repressed emotions – emotions we repeatedly push away, dissociate, or busy ourselves with activities so we don’t feel them. Clarity can also spontaneously be a nice side effect when we learn to sit with our physical discomfort.
9. Plan when to worry. Hear me out – setting aside time to worry is backed by behavioral science. Don’t do it right before bed or first thing in the morning, but plan for 15 and no more than 30 minutes in your day to worry. After that time is over, postpone your worries until your worry session the next day. After doing this enough, you may find that your repetitive concerns start to bore you, or you skip your worry appointments completely.
10. Visualize positive change. Try to imagine the positive feeling that will result from the action that feels impossible in the moment. By imagining your success, you can motivate yourself to transform out of your anxious state.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to anxiety since it affects each of us differently. If anxiety is problematic for you, it may be time to consider getting outside help from a licensed clinical therapist or an executive coach with licensed credentials in clinical psychology.