Anxiety is a common reason people come to therapy. Anxiety can come in many forms. Below are some tips to learn to see anxiety as a normal emotion. Letting go of the struggle with anxiety opens us up to focus on what is important and gives us more energy to make the changes we want in our life.
*Expect it – anxiety is a normal part of life, there is no “getting rid of it”. Understand that in certain situations anxiety is likely to show up (e.g., the first day of school, meeting new people, job interview, starting a new job, reading out loud in class, before a test). It is not the initial emotion that causes the difficulty, but rather a response to that emotion (feeling anger about anxiety or anxious about anxiety). That initial emotion, with this reaction, can easily spiral into a sense of feeling overwhelmed. For example, people might have the following types of reactions to anxiety: “I can’t stand this feeling”, “what’s wrong with me”, “I am dysfunctional”, “I have to not experience this”, “I need to avoid doing things that seems to cause this emotion”.
*Externalize it– notice it and name it. “Here is anxiety”, “Worried Willy”.
*Stop the struggle with anxiety. Notice how anxiety comes and goes. The less we try to stop it the less control it has over us.
*Notice how anxiety often shows up when the things we are doing are important to us. For example, if we did not care about relationships, we are much less likely to have social anxiety. If we did not really want the job, anxiety is unlikely to show up during the interview. If we are advocating for something important to us anxiety is usually present.
*Be willing to be uncomfortable on purpose. Need to “retrain the brain” by doing things we fear (if they are safe). Talk yourself through exposure “that’s my body reacting to my thoughts or to the situation”.
*Boss anxiety back, decide if it is being helpful or unhelpful. “If I let this thought boss me around will I be able to do the things that are important to me?” If it is helpful then take action, prepare ahead, make goals, ask for help, study, apologize, end a relationship, advocate for social change! If it is unhelpful see if you can let the thoughts go (clouds in the sky, cars on the road).
*Try to focus on what is happening right now even when our mind tells us to think of bad things happening in the future or that happened in the past. Often there is nothing that can be done about past or future experiences. However, if there is something practical that we can do now, then we should do it. There is nothing in this moment we cannot handle. We may not like it or want it, but we can handle it.
*Think about past times when you successfully handled a similar difficult situation. Anxiety tends to forget past successes.
*Change the focus of life to trying new things rather than staying away. Try to be curious, creative, and live fully with what life hands you, rather than needing to control and knowing everything that could happen. Life is like a card game -sometimes you get a good hand and sometimes you do no, but no matter what hand you get, you play it as best you can.
*Normalize it. Anxiety serves to protect us. There is nothing dysfunctional about anxiety. We can come to understand that our brain is like a problem-solving machine and sometimes it goes too far trying to protect us. When we see this as a normal process we let go of judgment and learn the skills to work differently with painful thoughts, feelings, memories, and body sensations.
* Be patient and gentle with yourself. Like learning any new skill this takes practice practice, practice! Its not that we like anxiety but we come to realize it is part of living a full life. Put your focus on the behaviors that are important to you and make room for anxiety.
Written by Alison Campbell, Registered Psychologist with Wildflowers