There is a lot to be anxious and worried about these days. From the uncertainty of a global pandemic, to turbulent elections, worldwide protests, acts of violence and political infighting, it does at times seem like we are living through the Apocalypse!
It is easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed out and fearful; indeed, these are normal human reactions to adverse events. However, the good news is that we don’t have to be controlled by these feelings. We can’t always control the circumstances of life, but we can learn to edit what has happened to us — we have the power to determine how these emotions impact us.
In fact, everyone experiences a level of anxiety from time to time; this is completely normal. Often, there are times in our life where “stuff” accumulates, and it is okay to be anxious when this happens. However, if left unmanaged, this “stuff” can progress to a point where we feel so overwhelmed with anxiety that our ability to go about daily life is obstructed, especially if it results in debilitating anxiety or panic attacks.
The key word here is “managed”. How we manage anxiety is, in large part, based on how we view anxiety. Managing anxiety means reframing those anxious thoughts when they arise. If we just see anxiety as a “disease” or “biochemical medical illness”, it can be pretty scary! It can even make us feel hopeless. The label alone can lock us in, potentially shaping the way we see ourselves and our capacity, or stigmatizing our biology—some people may view themselves as inherently lacking control and potentially unstable or even dangerous to themselves and others.
But there is another way to reframe anxiety to mitigate and manage it, one that I believe is more hopeful, kinder and less stigmatizing. Anxiety can be seen as a warning signal—a helpful messenger. It is telling us there is something going on in our lives that needs attention; something is threatening our peace and survival. This framing points to the narrative that is related to our anxiety, or what has happened to make us feel this way, rather than just focusing on a biological root as the cause of our anxiety.
Yes, this may sound great, but what happens when you are suddenly faced with some really bad news or you read something on social media that starts making you panic? In these moments, I have found that it is useful to have a worry-reducing toolbox with simple, everyday things you can do to help you control your fears and anxiety. Having these practical techniques at hand can really help you in the moment, especially when you can’t think clearly or don’t know what to do with yourself:
1. See your anxiety as a learning experience.
When you’re experiencing intense, anxious feelings, it can be hard to feel in control and work through these emotions. One thing I always recommend (it’s not easy but so effective and gets better with practice!) is to ask yourself: “what can I learn from this?” or “What is this situation telling me about myself?” Simple questions like these can make the biggest difference when it comes to your mental health and resilience.
This technique works really well if you use it along with another technique I call the multiple perspective advantage (MPA), where you objectively stand back and observe your own thinking as you ask, answer and discuss these two questions. This creates a strong, integrated energy flow throughout the brain that literally helps you see multiple ways of viewing a situation.
2. Distract yourself, temporarily!
Yes, temporary distractions can be a good thing. They can give you the space you need to let your emotions calm down, which is especially necessary when you feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. In fact, it takes about 60-90 seconds for intense emotions to die down, so a distraction (like going for a run, doing yoga or reading a good novel) when you are feeling very anxious can be a good thing.
But be careful! Distractions can become an issue when you find yourself turning to them a lot and using them to suppress what you feel and avoid dealing with the issue that drove you to the distraction. So, take a good look at the diversions in your life and ask yourself, “How am I using these distractions? Am I trying to avoid an issue? How can I better use distractions in my life?”. Commit to dealing with the issue once you are in a better mental space.
3. Don’t go to bed anxious.
If you often feel very anxious at night, try writing down your thoughts and feelings before going to sleep. You don’t have to analyze or “fix” them—just get them down on paper! The simple act of writing things down often brings balance back in the brain and helps produce feel good chemicals like serotonin. Writing also makes things seem a little less scary and overwhelming. Indeed, one of the best things about writing is that it weakens the impact and hold that anxious thought have over you, in both your mind and brain!
Some statements that can help you release this anxiety at night are:
- I did my best today and that is good enough.
- My level of productivity or checklist does not determine my self-worth.
- Tomorrow is another day for me to use my skills and talents to help others.
- Today I learned … and I am grateful for ….
- I am proud of myself for doing … today.
- My thoughts and feelings are temporary and will pass.
4. Have a game plan when you start getting WORRIED about the future.
Worrying about the future tricks us into believing we can control the future. Worry is an understandable attempt to reduce uncertainty, but it can often cause more problems. For a healthier approach to uncertainty, step out of destructive worry and into constructive worry by doing the following:
- Identify which uncertainty is causing you the most fear.
- Create a game plan for the best and worse outcomes.
- Set a 5-minute timer to allow yourself to worry about something, so you don’t suppress it.
- Talk to someone you trust, such as a loved one or therapist. Remember, there is no shame in asking for help!
5. Surround yourself with people who help, not hurt, your mental wellbeing.
Who you hang out with can hinder or help your emotional wellbeing. Remind yourself that it’s okay to surround yourself with people who are good for your mental health. Take note of how certain people make you feel, and take note of the people you are around when you are your happiest and truest self—these are the people who you need to be around more, especially when you feel very anxious or fearful!
Remember, it’s not only okay to put up boundaries, it’s essential. It’s okay to say no to certain engagements. It’s okay to end a relationship that makes you anxious or upset all the time. It’s okay to move on. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to take breaks from certain people. It’s okay to make yourself a priority!
6. Respond, don’t react.
Learn to respond, not just react, to your anxious thoughts and feelings. What’s the difference between responding and reacting? Responding means pausing between the stimulus and the action. It enables you to use that pause to evaluate what a beneficial or harmful response will look like. Reacting, on the other hand, is impulsive. Just reacting to what you are thinking or feeling in the moment gives more energy to the anxious structures and neurons in the brain.
A great way to make responding, not reacting, a habit is to stop and breathe for 60-90 seconds before responding to something (especially an anxious thought!), which will give your emotions time to calm down so you can self-regulate your thinking and ask yourself what your thoughts and feelings are trying to tell you. If you make this a conscious and deliberate practice, it will become easier over time, improving relationships and mental health!
7. Shift your attention.
Although it is important that you acknowledge your anxiety, don’t dwell on it. For every anxious thought you have, try to think about three positive things. These positive thoughts should not be something vague like “just be happy.” They should include specific things that make you joyful, like things you are grateful for in your life, what you appreciate, what makes you laugh, and what makes you feel content.
What is great about this 3:1 ratio is that you don’t have to suppress your worry or try to have an unrealistic, “happy-all-the-time” life. You don’t have to feel guilt or shame when you think anxious thoughts. Indeed, you need to allow room for negative thoughts in your life, as they can help you prepare for worst-case scenarios, deal with the past and keep you grounded. However, these negative thoughts need to be balanced with the good, so that they don’t become the dominant structure in your brain. Remember: what you think about the most will grow!
These are just a few great tips you can use in the moment to help you control and deal with your anxiety. You can write them down, set them as a reminder on your phone, post them around the house or on your fridge, or create a “worry box” that you can pull out when you are feeling very anxious or fearful.
Most importantly, remember that your worry or anxiety does not define you. We demonstrated in our most recent clinical trial that you can become empowered to feel in control of your mind, which can increase your feelings of control over your anxiety by up to 81%. See worry and anxiety as signals telling you something is going on around you or in your life that needs attention, not as something to fear or suppress. These techniques can help you get to a place where you can address the roots of your fear and anxiety, so that it no longer has power over you or your thinking!
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