Anxiety: What it is, What it Looks Like, and What to Do About it
Anxiety is that feeling of being worried or fearful.
It can feel different for everyone, and can vary in intensity due to a number of factors. Often times, we push through the anxiety of something by chalking it up to nerves because we know things will turn out just fine.
But what do you do when those nervous feelings turn into nervous thoughts or ideas, and then it spirals into avoiding situations or isolating yourself?
We all know someone, or maybe it’s you, that has cancelled plans at the last minute, declined that invite to a party, or procrastinated on finishing a big project. Some of us can use that anxiety as fuel to be motivated. Some of my best work is done at the last minute! (Okay, it may not be done “well”, but it’s done!) Sometimes we use that anxiety to just get whatever it is over with because we know we will feel better once it’s done. Sometimes, though, anxiety can take over and completely change our lives… because we let it.
Now, I know some of you are saying, “I didn’t choose this!” And you’re partly right! No one wants to live in fear. But think back to the first time you cancelled plans, or skipped an assignment, or avoided something that was difficult: You laid a path... one with the least resistance. Your brain said, “thank you,” and waves of relief probably enveloped you. For a time you felt relief, but then another time came, and you chose to do the same thing again because, damn it, you felt better last time! And that is how we build a pattern. We validate that our fear or worry is true, and it becomes insurmountable.
So, now what? Well, you forged a path in your brain that you took over and over again. That path is so well worn that you could walk it with your eyes closed. And most likely you do. Most likely, you now isolate, avoid, distract, and do any other number of things, except that which scares you. Which kinda works, but has also most likely left you wanting more from life, but not sure how to move forward.
First things first… do what scares you.
Think back to a time when you did something similar that you were worried, anxious, or afraid to do. How did it turn out? Did you die? No? Sweet. You probably won’t die this time either. (Unless it’s jumping out of planes and such. Don’t do that.)
Break it down into small steps. Are you anxious about going out to large places with lots of people? Start small. Go to a small coffee shop that’s kinda, sorta busy. Sit in the corner with your latte, and just observe from a safe corner. Notice that you are doing it, and that nothing bad is happening.
Do it for a little bit. Try for 1 minute. Or 2 minutes. Whatever the task is, just tell yourself you’ll do it for a set amount of time. Often times you will discover that it’s not so bad, and you’ll complete whatever it is you are doing!
If you are feeling anxious in a meeting or class, rather than leaving, try to sit with the anxiety. Ground yourself by noticing where you feel your body touching the chair, or the floor. Take a deep breath. Find objects in the room and describe them with annoying detail. Find some way to distract yourself away from anxious thoughts.
Challenge the thoughts! Ask yourself if the facts fit, or if you are making up stories. You will never know what someone is thinking, you can’t predict the future, and you won’t know unless you try! Check out this info on thought challenging.
Take a deep breath. When we become anxious, our body recognizes that we are feeling stressed, and it kicks in out fight or flight system. This system is looking for danger, and is amping our body up to either fight or flight. To calm it down, take deeeeeep breaths. Deep breaths activate the parasympathetic system that releases hormones that tell our body that things are fine. Here’s a nice infographic on why the breath is so important.
So, give some of these things a try when you feel anxious or worried. If your anxiety has gotten you to the point where you need some help, reach out! Anxiety can be debilitating, but conquering it can be empowering.
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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]