“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
In our lives, relationships, or careers, we are bound to experience stressful, anxiety-inducing situations. While we now know experiencing some anxiety is good for us (it builds resiliency, it helps you identify and respond to dangerous situations, it motivates you to succeed) we also know there’s an almost inconceivable difference between sufferers of acute and chronic anxiety.
Almost daily we’re faced with stressors like making time to fit in studying for an upcoming test or watching the bus you needed to catch drive off ahead of you. For some people though, these passing stressors turn on the body’s fight-or-flight response, and soon their body is responding to seemingly non-threatening situations in the same way it would on seeing a bear barreling its way.
This is something I have struggled with for years.
Here are three techniques that have helped me, which I try to practice regularly. I hope they’ll help guide you to feel more in control of your emotions and your life (because you ARE in charge).
Ask yourself “Is this in my control?”
This is a tool my therapist gave to me in one of our first sessions. I was drowning in a pool of “what if’s?” that were making me fearful of even leaving the house. She suggested that when I was experiencing an intense increase in my anxiety, like jumping from a 3 to a 7 (1 being low anxiety, 10 being high anxiety) to ask myself if what was creating that anxiety was at all in my control.
How did I put this into practice? Recently, my partner and I got a puppy. Within 24 hours of bringing her home, she went from a seemingly happy and healthy puppy to violently ill. Naturally, we rushed her to the vet where she needed to be kept for treatment and we were slapped with a nearly $1,300 bill. All these questions started racing through my mind—how are we going to afford this? What if they can’t help her? Are we going to have to put her down? You could say my anxiety levels would not have registered on the hypothetical chart.
As we left the veterinary office, feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I decided this was as good a time as any to put this tool to the test. So I asked myself, “Is this in my control?” I came to the quick and comforting realization that while my puppy’s health was not in my control, her care absolutely was. We got her where she needed to be and because of this she had her best chance at a truly happy and healthy life.
Anxiety’s nature is to create worry and unease so by asking yourself, “Is this in my control?” you’re bringing yourself back to the present moment, which is the only moment that matters.
Silently create an affirmation or repeat an encouraging thought
In the last few months I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery when it comes to managing and improving my mental health. One night when I was feeling particularly low, I stumbled across a quote by William Shakespeare that read, “Today is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” Boom, clarity. I use this most days (along with the constant reminders from my partner) to help me acknowledge that in almost all cases, my feelings are my choice.
Another option that I find helpful is asking, “If this was my best friend, my sister, brother or parent feeling this way, what would I be telling them?” You’ll probably come up with a paragraph of wonderful and encouraging things you would want to tell them. Shortening it down to a sentence, repeat it to yourself—over and over and over. Repeat until it becomes second nature, to the point where you don’t have to focus on repeating it as it is just playing in the back of your head… like your very own anthem of encouragement. This will help you be aware of your thoughts in that moment of hyper anxiety. If you can learn your pattern of negative self-talk you can begin to combat it with positives.
Do something for you
“There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” – Sylvia Plath
What do you love or did you love before this dark cloud seemed to consume you? For me, water is my happy place. Whether it’s swimming, sitting on the beach, listening to the rain or concentrating on the feeling of submerging into a hot bath (filled with bubbles of course), water gives me an instant calm. On the particularly hard nights, I try to make it my mission to get into that bathtub or even just wash some dishes. Feeling that water run over my hands and listening to it pour out of the faucet has a therapeutic effect on me.
I challenge you on your hardest days to find one thing to do for yourself that you (even if it was only sometime in the past) enjoy. Go for a bike ride, read a book, walk your dog, snuggle your cat, go to the gym, bake some brownies. Give yourself permission to do something for you, something you love or even something you just think you could love and then relish the happiness it provides. Even if it’s only a three-minute break from the anxiety that’s plaguing you. Take it, profess appreciation for it and then try it again next time.
One of the most important things you can do for yourself if you’re living with anxiety is to recognize that your anxiety isn’t going to disappear overnight. Overcoming it is not something you’ll be able to do by ignoring it. Take the time to listen to it, interpret it as you will, know that it’s in your control. You can’t eradicate it in an instant but you can manage it—your devotion to managing it however, will be the real key to your success.
Read more on this topic in OVERCOMING ANXIETY: How to handle anxiety disorders»