Anxiety 101

Anxiety 101

Anxiety disorders are the most common class of mental illness in the US and affect approximately 40 million US adults per year (nearly 20% of the population!). Between the rise in school shootings, terrorism, issues of oppression and discrimination, poverty, corruption, and the various impacts of the quick-fix consumer culture that we are immersed in, it’s no surprise that anxiety presents such a frequent and widespread challenge in our society. In fact, not only are anxiety disorders increasingly common, nearly everyone on the planet experiences some degree of anxiety on a regular basis. Is anxiety a challenge for you? If so, continue reading below for the Do’s and Don’ts of anxiety!

Do know that anxiety is normal, adaptive, & beneficial (to a degree). Anxiety helps us feel motivated and to make informed decisions about our wellbeing and best interest. While it can be extremely uncomfortable, it’s important to acknowledge anxiety’s positive functions and ways in which it supports our survival and successes in life. Believing that anxiety is “bad” or “negative” only fuels the discomfort associated with it and encourages an ineffective or unhealthy response to it.

Don’t avoid meaningful activities or people, even if they make you nervous. Avoidance of events that are aligned with our goals and/or values lead us to miss out on aspects of life that we find meaningful, which eventually leads to a number of regrets, hurt feelings, lost opportunities, and ruptured relationships. Avoidance also robs us of the opportunity to find out that feared encounters are rarely as bad as we worry they’ll be and the possibility of realizing that we can handle it. Instead, it heightens the anxiety associated with that event and predicts continued avoidance of it (a vicious cycle!).

Do develop tolerance for ambiguity and unpredictability. It’s not about knowing what’s coming, it’s about having the confidence that you can handle it, even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable for some period of time. Focus on doing your best in the present to maximize your chances of short-term and long-term success. Everyone experiences anxiety; the difference between those who are more or less successful in life often boils down to who opts to tolerate the discomfort of pursuing goals and valued activities/relationships even when it is anxiety-provoking to do so.

Don’t fight your anxiety. You know from past experience that you can’t talk yourself out of feeling anxious and that you aren’t in control of the information that comes into your mind. If you don’t believe me, try not to think about a pink elephant right now. Failed? That’s because we can’t control the thoughts and images that pop into our minds. Plus, trying not to think about the elephant is still a thought about that elephant! What we can do, however, is decide how to respond to those thoughts and to feel less threatened by, and reactive to, our feelings of anxiety. Energy is a precious resource, don’t waste it fighting something that will go away on its own. Instead, use it towards engaging in valued actions and goal-oriented behaviors.

Do understand what’s happening in your mind and body. The benefits of understanding anxiety exemplify the old adage, “knowledge is power.” Not only are we much less likely to misinterpret bodily symptoms of anxiety as signs of impending doom or health concerns, we are also more likely to feel empowered in responding to our anxious thoughts and feelings in more effective and adaptive ways as well as more able to make informed decisions in our daily lives. For example, you might find it helpful to understand how the nervous system responds to anxiety and what factors, such as caffeine or exercise, affect this response.

Don’t believe medication is the only form of treatment. While medications may certainly be helpful and, in more extreme cases, sometimes necessary, there are numerous nonpharmacological strategies that have proven to be effective as well. Individual therapy, support groups and hotlines, and educational resources such as self-help books and workbooks are widely available and have fantastic results in many cases in terms of developing insight, coping skills, etc. Get creative and be willing to experiment – you may be one hike, collage, or adult coloring book away from discovering a new coping skill!

Do stay in the present. Like many of these tips, staying present-focused is a skill that is easier to discuss than perform. It takes tremendous practice to successfully resist the temptation to spend your mental energy reliving the past or worrying about the future in favor of acknowledging the present moment exactly as it is. Activities such as mindfulness, guided imagery, yoga, and journaling all encourage present-mindedness and are linked to increased anxiety tolerance. People often find that life is much more manageable in the moment and often times things are actually ok in that moment as well.

Don’t attach to your thoughts. Just because you have a thought doesn’t make that thought a statement of fact. For example, having the thought “I’m going to fail” doesn’t actually ensure failure. But, while we often know that logically, it doesn’t stop our minds from attaching to the thoughts that come across it and leaving us vulnerable to buying into thoughts that aren’t accurate and don’t serve us. It’s important to remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts and that our worries are not our realities nor our destinies. Thank your mind for the thought and recognize it for what it is, a worrisome or otherwise difficult thought, nothing more.

Do treat yourself with kindness and compassion. If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, child, or parent, you have no business saying it to yourself. Develop a sense of compassion and empathy for yourself that is at least on par with what you offer the loved ones in your life. You’re not perfect and life is a journey wrought with missteps and learning lessons. Ask yourself honestly if you’re doing your best. If so, congratulate yourself on your hard work. If not, identify what steps you need to take in order to feel that way and get started on them as possible. Either way, engage in ample self-care in order to best support yourself along your journey (see last week’s blog about self-care for more ideas!)

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