Anxiety is something we all experience at one time or another, but with the coronavirus catching us all off guard, and changing the way we work and live, it’s only natural to feel uneasy, scared and anxious.
Anxiety is part of our brain’s innate flight or fight response and can be useful in some situations — but in excess, it can become a problem.
A big problem that can quickly take over your life.
With constant pressure to do more, produce more and be on and available 24/7, many of us deal with anxiety on a daily basis.
And now that we’re all trying to manage the reality of the coronavirus and what it means for our families, and future, anxiety is at an all-time high.
Aside from the obvious thoughts of worry and what-if, anxiety has a strong and powerful presence in your body. You may experience shortness of breath, a racing or pounding heart, sweating or clammy skin and tightness in your chest, among other symptoms.
If your anxiety is left unchecked it can lead to burnout, overwhelm, insomnia, depression and other chronic health issues.
As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I’ve tried many different techniques to help me manage my symptoms. Some being more successful than others, these are my top three suggestions for learning to work with your anxiety.
Start A Worry Journal
One of the gold-standards in psychology when it comes to working through specific fears and phobias is something called “exposure therapy”. This is where you’re gradually exposed to something you fear, say for example flying in an airplane, and learn to work through the feelings and emotions that accompany it.
Your brain learns that there is no danger, and gradually anxiety decreases to the point where it’s eliminated.
This approach works great if what you fear is something tangible that you can face head on.
But what about the ‘what-if’ thoughts that are future oriented?
How do you expose yourself to those?
A worry journal can be something as simple as a notebook or even a Google Doc where you record your ‘what-if’ thought, and then write out what would happen in painstaking detail if it were to come true.
With future focused ‘what-if’ thoughts, it’s often not the event itself that we’re most worried about, it’s how we may or may not be able to cope.
So when journaling the goal is to be as specific and detailed as possible. You want to create a situation where all of your worst fears come true, and then describe your thoughts, feelings and reactions to the situation.
You need to focus on creating a description that is so vivid and real that you put yourself through the emotional grind of this event actually occurring.
This process is repeated daily (or multiple times per day) until you’re at the point where you’ve worked through your ‘what-if’ worry and have shown yourself that you’re capable of handling it.
While this approach might sound counterintuitive, you’re effectively doing the same thing as traditional exposure therapy. The results are long lasting and are often achieved quite quickly when you commit to journal regularly.
Try Mindfulness Meditation
There is a lot of talk about the power of mindfulness meditation, and western medicine is finally catching up to what eastern cultures have known for centuries.
Mindfulness works and will change the structure of your brain.
The key to success with mindfulness is first understanding that it isn’t about quieting your thoughts or trying to escape them. It is about learning to sit with them, regardless of whether they are good or bad, and observing them without judgment.
The problem comes when we engage with a thought, attach a judgment or value to it, and then wrestle with it.
So if you’re feeling anxious about not meeting a deadline for example, it’s likely not the thought of actually meeting the deadline that’s bothering you. It’s the values that you attach to the thought and fixate on where your stress is coming from.
Making Time For Mindfulness Changed My Life
With these simple strategies you can cultivate your own practice.
You might think that not meeting a deadline means that you’re a failure. It could be that you think it’s a reflection of your work ethic or character. That you’re letting everyone down and don’t have what it takes to make it.
In order to get the most benefit from a meditation practice the key is consistency. This means showing up every day, sitting with your thoughts and learning to work with them.
To make it easier, try an app that can teach you the basics and walk you through a guided meditation. I’ve had great success with Headspace over the last seven years and would recommend it to anyone looking to start a practice. Calm is also another good option that’s been highly successful and carries great reviews from users.
Manage Your Expectations
The feeling of overwhelm can often be tied to having high expectations of your own performance and productivity.
We often get trapped into thinking that we ‘must’ be able to cross 20 things off our to-do list each day in order to feel in control and that we’re moving forward.
While it’s good to plan and have an idea about where you’re headed, piling too much on your plate will only lead you to feeling stressed and overwhelmed, while also killing your momentum.
Consider taking your to-do list and breaking it down into smaller chunks or sub lists that accurately detail the steps necessary to complete a task — all the way from start to finish.
Improve Your Productivity By Mastering The Art Of Single-Tasking
Say goodbye to the days of multi-tasking and focus on making real, meaningful progress.
Focus on one thing from your list at a time and give yourself enough time to actually complete a task.
Start tracking the time it takes you to finish up an item and use these metrics to budget your time accordingly.
This approach will help you to manage the expectations that you put on yourself when you’re trying to plow through a project and it’s taking a lot longer than you thought it would.
It’s also important to remember that you’re human and not a machine.
You can’t expect to feel the same way you did on Friday afternoon as you did on Tuesday morning. Your energy will ebb and flow. There will be parts of the day where you get nothing done because YouTube is simply more appealing — and that’s okay.
Work with your energy and try different ways to manage your time, all with an eye to compassionately working with your thoughts and feelings. Many of these expectations we have are old patterns of thinking that are wired into our brain because of years of repetition, and they will take some time to undo.
Excessive anxiety is not something to take lightly, but it can be effectively managed by using these and other strategies. When stuck with endless ‘what-if’ thoughts on repeat, a worry journal can provide you with the framework to expose yourself to the worst of these and ease any sense of danger. Mindfulness meditation can give you the tools you need to learn to sit with your thoughts and simply observe them.
By learning to manage the expectations to you have of yourself and your time, you can create a realistic understanding of your energy and productivity. When you take the pressure off yourself, your anxiety will naturally start to ease.