I’ll admit, somewhat begrudgingly, I’m a naturally anxious person. It’s funny because most people wouldn’t guess that about me. Us anxious people can be good at hiding.
I tend to attribute my anxious tendencies to my perfectionist nature. I tend to want to get everything right the first time. In my effort to achieve this, it sometimes feels like a constant to-do list runs through my head, spouting off this and that: pay bills, write a blog post, get groceries, and so on.
It’s fairly easy to say “there’s no way I can stop worrying.” Unfortunately, no matter who or what I choose to blame, I have to live with the way my mind works. This mind is mine for the rest of my life.
First, let’s clear up what anxiety means. Anxiety, by definition, is stress when there is no stressor (something that causes stress).
Say the stressor is a big exam. A student may be stressed when studying for the exam. Anxiety is what happens if the student leaves the test and continues to experience the same feelings they had when they were stressed. Of course, chronic anxiety is not as simple. Chronic anxiety tends to be deeper than this example. It can completely re-wire how a person functions. It can zap a person’s energy and affect your relationships.
In the United States, anxiety has ballooned into an epidemic. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 18% of American adults have some type of anxiety disorder. This is huge. If so many of us have problems with anxiety, is it just part of our American nature? I don’t have the answer to this question, but I know it doesn’t have to represent us.
Anxiety shouldn’t be viewed as a curse. If your tendency is to react with anxiety, you’re not inherently flawed. This thinking is just a different way of interacting with the world. This unique way of interacting can be managed. When you are easily anxious, small things seem to affect you more than other people. You wonder why this is. To deal with anxiety is to feel different.
People like to tell someone to “stop worrying” when they’re anxious. That’s like telling a train conductor to stop on a dime at full speed! Dealing with anxiety is a learning process. It takes time.
Here is what works for me. Please note I am telling you this as someone who has to work at this every day and has not been magically cured. There is no magical cure. There is learning to live a fulfilling life with it.
Get out of your head
I find when I am constantly focused on my own thoughts, I can quickly spiral into a cloud of anxiety. I get stuck in my head and can feel incredibly bogged down for an entire day.
Worrying about the future or whether I forgot something at home gets me nowhere. The sooner I can intercept my rapid fire thoughts, the sooner I can get back to the present where life is moving.
To get out of my head, I may have to literally tell myself “stop” and go do something, anything to get my body moving.
Recognize unhealthy thoughts
This takes some practice. If you’re naturally anxious, anxious thoughts are so commonplace they are hard to discern. Practice picking out the anxious thoughts that aren’t helpful. Then, try to physically imagine the thoughts leaving your head.
Mindfulness has become a buzzword. It’s one of those things you don’t really understand unless you experience it.
Be connected to the world around you and be aware of what’s going on in your head. Stop checking your email on your phone every ten minutes. Allow yourself to check in with how you feel instead.
I don’t like the term happiness. For me, it seems to miss the mark. Happiness feels like a fake smile in a school photo. Joy feels like a belly laugh. I’d rather have a belly laugh. Cultivating joy goes hand in hand with being mindful.
Try to gather joy from the world around you. Recognize beauty in the small things. Even when you are worried about something in the back of your mind, force yourself to see the present. If you redirect your thoughts to something positive, that silly worry might just fade away.
This is imperative and probably the hardest for me to do. Don’t take on too many commitments. Learn to say “no.” Set rules for yourself as to what you will take on. If you’ve been working all day, don’t work all night as well.
Give yourself mental breaks and the authority to determine your schedule. Don’t allow yourself to believe the simple life is an unproductive life. Try to resist feeling like there is always more to do. Insist to others that you need to simplify in order to be a better, less anxious person.
Work at it
Responding to life with anxiety is like muscle memory. In order to change it, you must repeat, repeat, repeat.
Don’t be afraid of failure, just keep moving forward. If you feel like you’re stuck in a cycle of anxiety, try your hardest to swim away from the current.
Even if it’s hard to try, having it in your head that reducing your anxiety takes practice and isn’t instant can help you manage the ups and downs.
Changing a behavior is hard. Make sure you acknowledge your successes, no matter how small they seem. Doing this will keep you focused on the positive.
Better yet, write down your small successes. This way you can go back and remind yourself at a time when you really need a reminder of how far you’ve come.
Why change what you already know?
I know, it’s hard to recognize an embedded behavior and set out to change it. I get it.
Here is a reason to kick start your journey. Understand that reducing anxiety is important for your health. When you are stressed or anxious, your body completely changes. It ramps up. Your mind signals the stress to your body and the body reacts like it was designed to.
Not only is anxiety bad for your mental health, it can contribute to physical problems like gastrointestinal and heart problems. Stress can make your body more prone to infection.
If your body is a home, imagine anxiety as an earthquake shaking its foundation. How can you function normally when the foundation is cracking? It’s difficult. In fact, it’s nearly impossible.
The key to dealing with anxiety is awareness. Awareness that being anxiety-riddled is not the only way to live. Awareness of your thoughts, strengths, and successes. It’s about taking steps, even tentative ones, away from your norm.
National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great resource. Check out their online resources or enroll in one of their classes if you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
And as always, if anxiety is negatively affecting your quality of life, please seek help from a licensed professional. It was life-changing for me.