Ever find yourself going through bouts of all-consuming anxiety? Unable to focus at work due to the neverending thought spiral dominating all your brain power? Struggling to be fully present with others because you’re distracted by your worries? We’ve been there.
Anxiety is extremely common and can be paralyzing. Anxiety also lives in the “future,” consuming our minds with fears about the off-chance that some “thing” will happen, distracting us from the present moment and actual situation. Though anxiety certainly has its helpful time and place, when it makes it impossible to focus on anything else or maintain our responsibilities, we need to learn how to cope. The good news is there are helpful and simple ways to help us focus on our lives as they currently are rather than our fears about how they might become.
Critically examine your anxious thoughts
Is what you’re worrying about actually true? For example, maybe you’re concerned about an important work meeting coming up. You might worry that you might say something “dumb,” or that others will think you’re incompetent. The way you want to reframe this thought pattern should pull on objective data: has someone called you dumb or incompetent before? Do you have any evidence at all that others are likely to think of you this way? If not, and you still worry that others feel this way and just aren’t telling you, remind yourself that people are paying way less attention to you than you think. Others’ opinions of you, in addition, often have much more to do with their own emotional states than they do with your actual behaviour.
Your worth as a person has nothing to do with others’ opinions of you. Your opinion of yourself is the one that matters most - and the more we focus on making ourselves proud, the less preoccupied we’ll be with what others think about us. Lastly, reflect on all the “wins” you’ve had in similar situations to the hypothetical one behind your present anxiety - the odds are usually in your favour that everything will turn out just fine. If they don’t, remember that the only way out is through, and that you have everything it takes to get through it.
Schedule in an “anxiety vent” later in the day
This could be calling a friend and rattling off (stream-of-consciousness style) all the anxious thoughts you’ve been having without any fear of judgment (including from yourself), or journaling. If you’re calling a friend, make sure you ask them if they have emotional energy and space to support you, first. Journaling is immensely helpful for taking away the power from an anxious thought - putting it on paper releases it from our brain’s pressure cooker and gives us perspective we couldn’t possibly have otherwise. Remember that anxiety is often irrational - meaning, you can have a thought that you know is unreasonable but that still affects you negatively.
As you release the valve on your anxiety and let all those thoughts potentially retrigger you, sit briefly with each of them. Let the thoughts (that may trigger feelings) come up, accept them for what they are, and allow them to be present without judgment. Then, let them dissipate naturally as they always will. Remember, anxiety is a feeling just like any other one - it has a corresponding chemical reaction in the body and brain that yields the mental feeling we do not enjoy. It has a finite lifespan and is temporary. It will not last for long, and definitely not forever.
Get comfortable with uncertainty
Accepting that you cannot possibly know, understand, and control all possible outcomes of a situation is essential for loosening anxiety’s grip on your day-to-day mental state. Reminding yourself to focus predominantly on the situations right in front of you, right now, and planning a little bit for the future, is the way to go. Regardless of how much we contemplate and plan for every possible future situation, we will never be able to fully control the outcome. Accepting that it’s ok not to know things is being able to tolerate uncertainty. The more we accept that things will play out the way they’ll play out, and that we’re competent and strong enough to get through them, the less pressure we’ll put on ourselves in the moment (i.e. the less anxious we’ll feel).
Accept your anxiety rather than fight it
Trying to deny or fight an anxious feeling does not make it go away - in fact, the more you try to shove the feeling down, the more anxious you’ll feel. The first step when you’re feeling anxious is to name it (“I’m feeling anxious”) and accept it for what it is: a temporary feeling that will naturally dissipate on its own. Don’t give it more power or influence than it deserves. Focus on what’s within your control instead and distract yourself with something more positive if necessary. You want to accept your feelings as merely temporary visitors. This means not demanding yourself to feel a different way or shaming yourself for feeling the way you do - emotions are usually out of our control once we’re already in them.
Lastly, don’t let your anxiety call the shots
Stopping what we’re doing just because we’ve started to feel anxious isn’t the right approach. The more power and leeway we give our anxiety, the more it starts to dominate our life and become a persistent problem. The key here is accepting your emotions as they arise, continuing on with what you were doing as much as possible (finding a temporary distraction if necessary), and eventually letting them subside.
If your anxiety is chronic and constant, it could be time to seek professional help. Therapy and/or medication can be incredibly useful and often essential in preventing anxiety from ruling your life. No matter what, remember that you are allowed to feel whichever way you feel, all the time. Show yourself compassion. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a loved one or dear friend. Be patient and kind to yourself - we’re all dealing with a lot.