“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.”C. H. Spurgeon
Anxiety, stress or panic are all learned responses to our daily experiences. When outside world can all seem overwhelming from the global outbreak of pandemic, it can be quite distressing for many of us whether we usually suffer from anxiety or not. The uncertainty and instability around us today has the potential to exacerbate responses like anxiety and depression. Anxiety exists in all of us, and we all experience it at some level when we face uncontrollable and unavoidable circumstances. The uneasiness we have about a future filled with possible threats and negative experiences manifests in the form of worry, insecurity and overwhelm.
Although anxiety has many negative aspects, it can be a helpful tool for our success and survival to some extent. It serves us as a safety mechanism to cope with stress and potential threats in certain situations. It is our body’s way to remind us that we need to pay attention, like for instance, we may try harder to be prepared or be cautious when doing something that we perceive as a threat or has some risk.
When anxiety is helpful and when it is unhelpful
“Anxiety ’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.” ~Jodi Picoult
Anxiety is a practical emotion that can be helpful and makes us responsible. For instance, if you have a deadline for work, you might experience a little anxiety about missing it, but this also motivates you to get the work done on time. Anxiety is also useful in helping us determine what issues we need to address in our personal or professional life. An anxious mind can be a strong and powerful mind that can outrun our logic and rationality sometimes. It is a normal response from a strong, healthy brain that thinks there might be trouble about and instantly responds by making us stronger and more alert versions of ourselves.
We can harness the strength and power of our protective anxious mind and use it to work for us instead of against us. But, if anxiety becomes intense, to the point of making you constantly feeling restless or keeps you on edge despite there being no apparent cause, causing fatigue, sleep problems, or difficulty concentrating, this is when anxiety becomes intrusive and hard to live with. It stops being helpful and begins to take control over us to run the show. This happens when we forget that it is just a message we can choose to accept or ignore and we allow it to make decisions for us. When the brain is over sensitive to threat, it tries to keep us out of the way of trouble by sending us signals. And those signals aren’t always accurate. But if we ruminate and start obsessing about every fearful or irrational thought that comes our way, and constantly imagine worst-case scenarios, then we let our anxious mind has its way and control our emotions, actions and experiences.
We begin to overvalue our anxiousness and stop looking at all other evidence when we assess a situation. We begin to imagine every catastrophic outcome possible and avoid what we fear. We never begin to think about the evidence that negates our fear. In order to feel less anxious, we try to avoid what we fear. And as a result we give power to our anxiety every time we choose not to do whatever it is that makes us anxious.
When Anxious mindset becomes unproductive
Experiencing anxiety for extended period of time and internalising anxious feelings can often lead to loss of motivation and self-confidence. We make associations between our anxiety and certain events and accept them as facts. The less confident you are, the more you become indecisive. Your indecision and levels of pessimism about uncertain future can essentially lead to the fear of failure. And as a result of this fear, you tend to avoid doing things you could normally do. Generalised anxiety often results in excessive feelings of overwhelm or simply a lack of control resulting from exaggerated worry and tension.
Our irrational thoughts/beliefs prevent us from seeing things in a more positive and empowering way. For instance, our irrational beliefs linked to a sense of dependency, vulnerability, disapproval, defectiveness or fear of failure can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things clearly. These anxious feelings increase fear of rejection and creates worries like an uncertain future or that things will be worse than they are at present.
Develop a realistic attitude to deal with anxiety
When we avoid something that makes us anxious, we temporarily feel relief from feelings of anxiety, and therefore draw the conclusion that avoidance is the treatment. Avoiding the anxious feelings or completely eliminating them are not viable solutions. Ignoring or repressing anxious emotions only makes them more powerful and more fear-inducing. Instead of avoiding, if we become mindful and acknowledge that which is making us anxious, we loosen the anxious associations we have made.
“Only when you begin to acknowledge that you are afraid, and that there is nothing “wrong” or “bad” about you for feeling that way and take responsibility for your inner-self, you can move from a state of vulnerability to a state of empowerment.”
How to stop letting anxiety control you?
There are many aspects of mindfulness that can be used to strengthen yourself against anxiety by separating the good anxious thoughts from bad. Here are some mindful steps to practice in order not to allow your anxiety control you.
Be an ‘observer’ of your anxious thoughts
Anxiety has a way of drawing you in and making you engage with every anxious thought that comes in thinking distance of you. Watch your thoughts as an observer without needing to change, understand or talk yourself out of them. Observe your self-talk and irrational fears that might be driving your decision and behaviour. Ask yourself: What are my anxious feelings and thoughts in the moment? What is my self-talk about the situation I am in?
What do I believe about this situation that is causing anxiety? Look for any specific pattern in what you are doing or saying that is causing you anxiety. Be patient and know that whatever you are feeling, or whatever you are thinking, it will pass.
Keep trying to examine the situations that trigger anxiety. Once you practice slowing down and thinking about the situations, you will be able to pick out thoughts and feelings that may have helped boost your anxiety. Try looking at your emotions from an external perspective without judgment. What has triggered your feelings of anxiety? Was it another person or Was it something in your external environment? Or was it your perspective, expectations or interpretations of the situation?
Gain clarity on what specifically triggered your anxiety to resolve these feelings in a positive way.
Practice being ‘mindful’ of your present moment
The moment you are feeling anxious, realise that you are focusing on an uncertain future. Because anxiety comes with a bunch of unknowns and the physical feelings doesn’t make sense, our thoughtful mind tries to put these feelings and thoughts in context. You might wonder if that bad feeling means something bad is actually going to happen. This creates doubt in your mind which can lead to fear and inaction. By focusing on the future, you are already creating worst-case scenarios in your mind, and this is causing you to feel anxious.
Instead just be mindful of the present moment. Accept the anxious feelings in the moment and try to be with your anxiety without pushing against it. Know that your anxiety is there as warning and not a prediction. Anchor yourself in the present moment by staying with what actually is happening, keep yourself busy doing your daily routines and tasks rather than focusing what might happen. Gain control over your emotions and the situation you are dealing with in the moment. This will strengthen your ability to pull back from the anxious thoughts about uncertain future that take you away from who you really are.
Try to ‘challenge and replace’ unrealistic thoughts
This is a process by which you stop your anxiety-producing thoughts and replace them with thoughts of something that brings you happiness or peace. This can help you avoid rumination, that broken-record thought cycle where you can’t seem to stop obsessing about something.
You can also ask yourself some questions. Is the thing you are afraid of a true and present danger? Are my fears about the situation I am in are rational? Realize that you are experiencing fear, but that you are not in danger. Taking the danger out of the situation will help you to relax a bit.
Look for your ‘strengths’
While experiencing anxiety , you will often be in a state of vulnerability where you feel powerless to take charge of your circumstances. For this reason it is important to tap into your strengths that could help you get through this personal challenge successfully. If you find this difficult to do, then reflect back on your past and think about the qualities and strengths that served you before to overcome emotional set backs.
You can tap into your knowledge, beliefs, support system and other things that you could use to help find a better way of moving forward. Ask yourself: What are my strongest qualities? What are my greatest strengths? How could they assist me in resolving the angst of the present situation?
‘Trust’ your resourcefulness
Trust that whatever happens, you can deal with it. Underlying all worry, anxiety and stress is fear that we won’t be able to cope. Fear of failure for instance isn’t the fear of failure, but fear that you won’t cope with the failure. To begin with take control of your self-talk and thought process. When we are anxious our thoughts run rampant focusing on all the things we can’t control and all the negative consequences that may result.
Take charge of these thoughts by focusing on opportunities and potential solutions for your anxiety. See your anxiety and the situation you are working through as a problem. And ask yourself: What problem am I currently experiencing? What can I do to alleviate my feelings about this situation?
‘Shift’ your perspective
Explore, analyse and challenge the negative beliefs behind anxiety to shift your perspective. What do I believe about this situation? What assumptions am I making about this situation? Are these beliefs and feelings are logical? How are they flawed?
Reflecting on these questions helps shift your perspective about your circumstances. Consciously reframe your experiences and look got alternate perspective of the situation that will potentially help empower you moving forward. What’s another way to look at this situation? What if I am not actually feeling anxious, but rather feeling excited about this situation? Is there any point in feeling anxious about it in the moment? Thinking in different perspective will help you overcome your irrational beliefs and changes your state of vulnerability to a state of empowerment.
It’s important to be patient and kind to yourself as you adapt to a new and very difficult reality. You’re figuring out how to cope under circumstances you didn’t expect and haven’t experienced before. It’s normal for that to be difficult. The best way to start the difficult process of self-compassion is to notice your self-judgement when it starts to set in. Self-compassion can produce a relaxation and safer response. Taking note of your tendency to judge your behaviour as “weak” or “not enough” can be the first step to stopping that sort of negative self-talk and becoming kinder to yourself. Avoid judging yourself or your thoughts. Remember: you can’t necessarily control what thoughts or feelings show up, and they are not inherently “good” or “bad.” You can only control your reactions to those thoughts and feelings. Approach your negative thoughts with compassion and remind yourself that thoughts are not facts. Accept your emotions and thoughts without judgment and view them as adaptive responses to situations you encounter to find the truth.
‘Accept’ failure and mistakes
We become anxious because we are afraid of failing or making mistakes or if the things that we have little control over. In order to eliminate anxiety, you must come to accept the fact that you won’t always be able to control the outcome. Sometimes you will just have to accept that you will need to adapt to whatever changes come your way. Accept that sometimes failure is a part of life, and it is a necessary component of growth. Don’t resist failure by becoming anxious of it. In the same way, mistakes are valuable lessons that can help you to do things differently and even better the next time around. Mistakes will force you to reflect upon what you are doing, upon the decisions you are making and help you figure out a better way moving forward.
Set ‘realistic’ expectations
Anxiety can often result from having too much on your mind. This is often the case when we over-complicate things or overburden ourselves with unrealistic expectations. Aiming too high and expecting too much of yourself and your abilities can make you anxious. Consider setting realistic expectations. Putting unnecessary pressure on yourself will cause more stress and results in lower levels of productivity. Instead of over-complicating things, think about how you could potentially simplify your life, your schedule and your routine and the activities you take up in a daily basis. Simplifying can help you eliminate those things that often make you feel little anxious.
In what area of your life, you feel anxious? Do you allow yourself focus on anxious thoughts?
Are your current goals realistic?
Is your anxiousness based on facts or assumptions?
Are you self-compassionate?
Do you let things that are out of your control make you anxious?
What is your self-talk in anxious situations?
What actions you can take to expand your current perspective?
Do you fear failure or making mistakes?
What irrational beliefs trigger your anxious ness?
What are your strengths and how do you use them in resolving anxious situations? Reflect on the above questions to gain clarity on your strengths and beliefs that trigger anxiety.
Anxious thoughts and feelings keep us safe to some extent. They put us on stand by to deal with anything that gets in the way. But if your anxiousness becomes intense and begins to control you or decide for you, then it is time to take control of your negative and repetitive thoughts and show them who’s in control. Changing anxious mindset requires time and practice. Remember, your mind has been doing what it’s doing for a while and it takes time to unlearn it’s habits. Practice the above mindful steps in order to develop greater insight and expand your perspective to cope with anxiety in a more effective manner.