Declaring war on your anxiety

For those of us that struggle with anxiety, we know far too well that it can have devastating effects on your day-to-day life. At its worst, it can consume you all day and induce a state of mild paralysis where you feel that you can’t take action. What I’m referring to is not necessarily the type of anxiety you feel before giving a presentation (although it could be), but it’s when you wake up in the morning and feel tense and afraid. You’re subconsciously wondering, how am I going to survive the day? What’s going to trigger my anxiety? And oddly enough, sometimes just the fear of getting anxiety starts to cause anxiety.

A simple trick that I uncovered a few days ago to help me navigate my anxiety is to declare war on it. I woke up one morning, was waiting for my coffee to finish brewing, and despite feeling groggy, my mind started to run a million miles an hour, hoping that I wouldn’t feel anxious today. That very thought started to make me anxious. I don’t know what triggered this thought in my head, but I just got a bit fed up. I’m tired of this. Enough is enough. Today, I’m not going to let my anxiety control me. I took a deep breath, grabbed my coffee, went to my room, and proceeded on with my day as if my anxiety did not exist.

Did the anxiety disappear for the rest of the day? No. But for some reason, it wasn’t crippling or paralyzing. It was just something my body was doing on autopilot (e.g., getting tense, heart rate elevating). Sure my mind would still go down rabbit holes of anxious thinking, but there was a detachment from those thoughts. Luckily enough, things weren’t too bad from midday onward, and towards the end of the day, those thoughts significantly reduced.

Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort each morning to declare war on my anxiety. There’s no wow factor to this. It’s nothing magical. But making this affirmation, especially when I can emotionally get behind it, seems to make a difference.You have to bring this intention to not let your anxiety rule over you to your conscious awareness by saying it out loud (or in your head) in the morning. The anxious thoughts come and go, but it doesn’t define me, and therefore, it shouldn’t dictate my day or get in the way of me pursuing other things.

Not sure what to do? Do nothing

Worrying is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.

When something is not working, when we feel lost, or when we don’t know what to be doing in the present moment, our mind nudges us into action. It could be seeking a solution, talking to someone about our stressors, or just distracting ourselves with a TV show or food. Through some mechanism over time, our mind has developed this strong belief that doing is always the solution. However, as we have experienced over and over again, action does not fix everything. Watching TV doesn’t always cure boredom, and venting doesn’t heal anger. If we’re lucky, we may achieve temporary relief, but the root of the problem remains – we always feel the need to control things, and as a result, we feel the need to always do something.

The Art of Non-Doing

Yesterday, when feeling a bit restless and in a rut, I wrote a journal entry/note on my phone:

I gave in today and tried to logically get myself out of the rut that I’m feeling regarding my monotonous day-to-day routine. I googled for ideas, I went on Reddit, I listened to talks, I tried reading, and quite honestly, none of it worked. Had I not stressed over this, I could have least enjoyed the past two hours. It wouldn’t change anything, but it may have been relaxing, and that might have helped.

I experienced a challenging emotion (restlessness), but no amount of doing was able to fix this. As a matter of fact, it may have made things worse because I felt tired and like I had lost valuable time on my day off, and I had nothing to show for it. When we feel unpleasant emotions, we feel the need to get rid of them. What we fail to recognize and admit to ourselves is that it is okay, and it is human, to experience negative emotions. Not every negative moment or feeling has to be a crisis.

We do not know how to sit with our feelings. The art of non-doing is recognizing that it is okay to not try to fix everything. It is okay to feel bad and let ourselves feel that way. Oddly enough, this acknowledgment in and of itself is empowering and a mood lifter. Does this mean give up or stop trying? Absolutely not! It means learning to distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot control and being okay with what you cannot control.

Non-doing simply means letting go, letting things be the way that they are, and letting them unfold the way they are intended.

Practicing Non-Doing

“When we spend some time each day in non-doing, resting in awareness, observing the flow of the breath and the activity of our mind and body without getting caught up in that activity, we are cultivating calmness and mindfulness hand in hand”

~Jon Kabat-Zinn

Meditation, at its core, is an exercise of non-doing. However, it is not the only way to practice non-doing. I have found that non-doing is about absorbing what is happening in the present moment as it shifts into the next moment. It is also about making a conscious decision not to be pulled in several directions by our feelings, desires, or external pressure. Non-doing can also manifest through effortless action (i.e., things that induce a state of flow). This could be listening to music, going for a walk, or swimming. The key here is intentionality. Is movement enabling your ability to be aware and present, or is it just another thing you are doing?

More than anything, non-doing is something that results through the decisions we make in our day-to-day. When you’re bored, do you automatically grab your smartphone and scroll through social media, or do you sit with it and be okay being bored? When someone messages you from work in the evening, do you immediately respond or put it aside and respond during regular working hours?

Final words…

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy”

~ Guillaume Apollinaire

If there’s a takeaway I can give from this post, it is this – the next time you’re in a rut, or you feel stuck, rather than jumping into action, take a moment to pause. Take just two minutes. Take a handful of deep breathes, analyze what is happening around you, recite a mantra to ground you, and/or ask yourself this question – do I need to be doing something right now and will it fix how I am feeling?

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety

When faced with a situation that gives us anxiety, one of the most common responses is to do what we can to avoid or get out of that situation. For example, a socially anxious person might try to think of ways to get out of having to go to a party. A person who gets nervous around doctors may try to postpone their annual checkup. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. We see the source of anxiety as a threat, so we try to run away from it. Unfortunately, while we may gain short-term relief, the anxiety only remains dormant for a short period and becomes worse in the long-run.

The Cycle of Anxiety

The diagram below illustrates how avoidance leads to an endless cycle of anxiety.

The challenge with avoidance as a coping mechanism is that it often results in short-term anxiety relief, reinforcing the feeling that avoidance is a good way to reduce anxiety. However, as with just about any anxiety-inducing situation, it’s never a once in a lifetime situation. There will always be another social interaction waiting for us or another health issue that forces us to the doctor’s office. To make things worse, each time we engage in avoidance, the anxiety becomes a bigger hurdle to overcome.

The challenge then is that we are too anxious to engage in behaviors that will alleviate our anxiety, but our only other option, avoidance, increases anxiety. It is a vicious cycle.

With that, the question arises – what can we do?

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety

The solution is simple, but unsurprisingly, it’s not easy. At the end of the day, the advice that any expert can give you boils down to one thing – you have to deal with the anxiety. You can’t avoid it. You have to approach it head-on. Often when we are anxious about something, we catastrophize and assume that the worst will happen. We might consciously even be aware that we are thinking irrationally, but it doesn’t reduce the anxiety or lessen the symptoms. What works is to face it. Challenge your negative assumptions and anxious thoughts.

That being said, you can approach this strategically to reduce the short-term stress (it won’t entirely go away, though):

  1. Challenge your irrational thoughts. Negative and irrational thoughts feed the cycle of anxiety. Try to identify the cognitive distortions that you are guilty of and challenge each assumption. For example, you might say to yourself, “I have never given a good presentation before. I have always been terrible with public speaking.” In this instance, I would write this negative thought on a piece of paper, identify the cognitive distortion associated with it (i.e., overgeneralization), and then write a statement that challenges this claim. In this case, I would try to identify a few instances where I did have success with public speaking or did give a good presentation.
  2. Start slow. If your social anxiety doesn’t allow you to speak with a cashier, the odds are that going to a large party full of strangers is not a good starting point. Instead, start with small things. When you order pizza, speak with someone on the phone rather than ordering online. Speak with a cashier rather than using self-checkout.
  3. Break down the anxiety-inducing situation into smaller and more manageable tasks. If you are avoiding going to the doctor, step one is just to book your appointment. You can always cancel, so there’s no harm in scheduling it and adding it to your calendar. Start with that.
  4. Rip it off like a band-aid. While some benefit from starting small and slow, others may benefit from the opposite – tackle the anxiety-inducing situation head-on. Get it over with. Don’t let your mind talk you out of it. Just do it. Now.
  5. Control what you can control to increase the likelihood of success. In my childhood, I had some negative experiences going to the dentist. As a result, it’s always been a challenge to get myself to go. As an adult, though, I now have more control over my dental health and dentist. So the thing I did to help increase the likelihood of success was to thoroughly research a dentist with positive reviews. The odds are that they have good reviews for a reason. Nothing is a certainty, but I have increased the probability of having a positive experience.
  6. Use the energy from short-term successes to address other areas of your anxiety. If you tackle an anxiety-inducing situation, and it results in a positive outcome, use the temporary positive feelings to keep tackling your anxiety. For example, if you struggle with public speaking but just gave a presentation that you feel great about, try to book and immediately have your next speaking engagement. If you are afraid of doctors and dentists and just managed to overcome your fear by going to the doctor, book your dentist visit and go as soon as possible. Ride the high and positive feelings from one encounter to address another.

Final Words…

The reality is that if you struggle with anxiety, it will always be there to some degree. However, with the proper techniques, it can become dormant indefinitely, and that’s the goal. Healthy behaviors that reduce anxiety operate in the same way that muscles do. The more you exercise and the more you practice, the stronger the muscles become. Stop exercising, however, and they become weaker. Similarly, with anxiety, you need to keep engaging in non-avoidance based behaviors to keep the anxiety away. Stop practicing, and it can return.

The most effective way to reduce stress

Before I talk about how to reduce stress, I want to start off by stating that stress is not necessarily bad for you. As many of you already know, stress can actually be a good thing. From an evolutionary perspective, it can help you escape a dangerous situation (i.e., fight or flight), and from an everyday standpoint, it can help you get work done.

The Yerkes-Dodson law (see the illustration below) suggests that a moderate amount of stress leads to a state of ‘optimal arousal’ which leads to high performance. Conversely, less stress is associated with fatigue or sleepiness (low performance), and too much stress is associated with anxiety and impaired performance:

Illustration of Yerkes-Dodson law [1]. 

Furthermore, in addition to enhancing performance, a moderate amount of stress helps you get stronger both physically and mentally. In his talk, Tal Ben-Shahar provides us with an example and says that when you go to the gym and workout, what are you doing with your muscles? You are stressing them. So when you go to the gym regularly and repeatedly stress your muscles, they become stronger.

If you’ve read my previous blog post on flow, you know that to reach a state of flow, or optimal experience, you need to be optimally aroused. In other words, when engaged in an activity, the challenge of the activity needs to match the level of skill you have. Too easy and you’ll be bored, and if the activity is too difficult, you’ll feel anxious. See the example below:

Image result for flow csikszentmihalyi

As you see, multiple psychological theories support this idea that stress is not bad. That being said, stress becomes a problem when it persists for long periods of time or exceeds healthy levels. So what can we do in these situations to reduce our stress or prevent us from feeling overly stressed in the first place?

The most effective way to reduce stress:

Exercising, meditating, talking to a friend, taking a nap, journaling… these are all examples of things you can do to reduce stress. However, they often only address the symptoms of stress, not the cause of it. While there are some causes of stress that are outside of our control (e.g., the loss of a loved one), we can control most things that cause stress.

So for those things that we can control, what is the most effective way to reduce stress? Take action.

Stressed about your upcoming exam? Study. Stressed about a project at work? Finish it. Stressed about a stupid argument that you got into with your spouse? Talk with your spouse and apologize. Stressed about your poor health? Eat better and start exercising. Stressed that you lost your job? Start applying for new jobs.

Think about it. If you’re stressing about an upcoming exam, there’s only one thing you can do to help you prepare for your exam – study. As you study, you’ll start feeling more prepared, and as a result, you’ll feel less stressed. If you are anxious that maybe you’ll develop high blood pressure or diabetes, then start eating healthier and start exercising. It’s not fun and it is not easy. However, over time, as you get healthier, you will start stressing less and less about your health.

Taking action is often the best way to reduce stress. The next best thing you can do to reduce stress is to focus on the process and on what you can control, and stop focusing on the outcome and what you cannot control. You can control how hard you work on an assignment, but not how well it is received by your boss (only your boss can control that).

Once you learn to take action and focus on the process instead of the outcome, stress will become your ally.