How to Manage Anxiety
Everybody experiences worry, fear, stress, nervousness, and tension at some point in their lives. It’s natural to fret over a test score, stress out over bills, or worry about relationships.
So how do you know if your anxiety has escalated from normal worry to dysfunctional anxiety? Here are a few telltale signs:
- Do you worry about almost everything?
- Do you find it hard to control your worry?
- Do you find yourself worrying about things that other people do not?
- Do you feel restless, tense, or on edge most of the day?
- Do racing thoughts regularly keep you up at night?
- Are you often irritable?
- Do people makes comments about your anxiety? (e.g., “You’re too high strung.”)
- Does your anxiety have a significant impact on your work, school, and/or social life?
If you answered yes to many of these questions then you might have a problem with anxiety. You wouldn’t be alone if you do. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 18% of the U.S. adult population suffers from an anxiety disorder. That’s 40 million people! The good news is that you can control anxiety. Here are some practical methods to help you manage anxiety.
Schedule worry time
It might seem strange that worrying on purpose would help you control worry in the long run, but it works. One of the problems with dysfunctional worry is that it distracts us from accomplishing important daily tasks.
Therefore, if you have 2o minutes of predetermined “worry time” at the same time every day, you can defer worries that pop up throughout the day and focus on the tasks at hand. Write worries down as they come up if you have to, but only worry about them during your scheduled worry-time.
If you’ve ever been on a diet then you have probably experienced the power of distraction. Are you craving a sleeve of Oreos? Distract yourself by doing some push ups, reading a book, talking to a friend, or playing a game on your phone. Before you know it you’ve reached level 300 in Candy Crush and the craving is gone.
The same applies to just about any dysfunctional worry. Distract yourself long enough and the thought loses it’s urgency. Warning: do not distract yourself with alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual activity. While temporarily effective, these diversions cause more problems in the long run.
Challenge your thoughts
Let’s say you and I are walking down the street and we see a mutual friend. We both wave, but our friend does not wave back.
I start to worry that our friend hates me or is mad at me. My jaw clenches and my palms sweat as I hurriedly scan my mental catalog of our interactions during the previous 12 months for possible sources of conflict.
You, on the other hand, notice that our friend did not return our wave and immediately think, “Huh. Maybe he didn’t see me.”
You and I both experienced the exact same stimulus (i.e., friend not returning a wave), but had dramatically different reactions. The difference in our reactions comes from how we interpret the stimulus. In other words, how you feel at any given moment is strongly connected to what you THINK is actually happening.
The problem with thoughts is that they can be biased, unrealistic, or flat-out wrong. Anxious people usually have biases toward negativity and fear. Therapists sometimes refer to these biases as “cognitive distortions” or “thinking errors.” It takes practice and effort, but if you can catch these distortions when you make them, you can then dispute their usefulness and replace them with more useful thinking.
So, now that I know I have a tendency to blow things out of proportion, the next time I notice my anxiety mounting I can slam my psychic brake and ask myself: “Am I overreacting? Am I ignoring other interpretations of this event? What evidence do I have that what I’m thinking is correct.”
I’m sure if you asked someone how to manage anxiety and she said, “just relax” you would probably want to punch her in the neck. Just hear me out, though.
It seems like most modern humans, especially Americans, have forgotten the art of relaxation. Sometimes you even see people wearing their busy schedules like a medal, as if having no time to eat, socialize, or sleep is enviable. Listen to me, people: IT IS OKAY TO RELAX!
But how do you do it? There are many ways:
- Meditate (see my post on meditation here).
- Go for a walk or hike.
- Spend some time in nature.
- Call or write an email to a friend and reminisce about old times.
- Write a nice note to a loved one.
- Read or watch something just for fun.
- Play a game.
- Get on the floor and do some stretching.
- Listen to music.
This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure that if you put your mind to it you could come up with some other relaxing things to do. Believe it or not, the thing you do is not as important as actually doing it. So put it on your schedule and do something relaxing every day.
I understand that many of you live stressful lives and some of you live tragic ones. You might be thinking that these four simple methods couldn’t possibly help you manage anxiety.
I’ll admit, you could do all of these things and still have problems in your life. They’re not designed to take away your problems. They’re designed to make you stronger in the face of those problems.
Try them. Try them more than once. After you try them, start practicing them. Consistent practice is required to develop any skill, and controlling your anxiety is a skill you can master.