This is a guest post by Ernest Schmidt, psychotherapist and author of Tackling Anxiety: How to Regain Your Peace of Mind. I asked Ernie to share some ideas on how to bounce back from one of the most difficult emotions: anxiety.
Anxiety is a very common mental health concern. In fact, just about everyone can identify a time in their lives when they have been bothered by anxiety, whether it be public speaking anxiety, panic attacks, social nervousness, or just plain old worry.
Some people experience anxiety as only a small annoyance, but many others have anxious feelings that are extremely uncomfortable, or even life altering. You can learn to successfully manage anxiety by learning about and understanding this emotion and following a few guidelines.
What to look for
Common ways you may experience anxiety are: rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, fear of losing control, the feeling of butterflies in your stomach, obsessive thoughts or worries, restlessness, irritability, and avoidance of things, people, or places that are connected with the anxiety.
This last symptom, avoidance or the act of running from your anxiety, is often the most destructive of all but is generally the least recognized when you are struggling with anxiety. You may practice avoidance by turning down quality job offers that include an element of public speaking, whereas others consistently pass up social engagements.
There are several ways to overcome anxiety, but unless you stop running and your avoidance is addressed, it is difficult to make significant and long-lasting progress.
1. Become aware
It is difficult to change something that is not fully acknowledged. To begin to acknowledge and understand your anxiety, it is helpful to create a list of all the things you have avoided due to worry or anxious feelings. Although this can be somewhat painful and challenging, it is also extremely motivating.
You might realize you have not signed up for particular college courses that involve giving presentations, or perhaps you avoid having lunch out with friends because you fear you will look strange while you’re eating, or that you can’t keep up the conversation. This tangible list allows you to focus on specific areas for improvement.
Without this understanding and awareness, the process of trying to manage anxiety is often aimless and uninspired.
2. Change the way you think
Although changing your thoughts may sound daunting, it can be relatively easy with the right guidance. A great technique is to mentally observe your thoughts when you are feeling anxious and then record them on paper.
For example, someone who is overwhelmed with change in his or her life may have the thought “I can’t handle this” or “I am going to have a nervous breakdown.” Rather than getting caught up in the worry itself, you can use your rational mind to respond to your faulty thoughts.
For instance, if you really try to define “nervous breakdown,” you will realize it’s a false term. You may be experiencing intense anxiety, but neither your nervous system nor your brain actually “breaks.” Although these mental misstatements may seem harmless, they profoundly affect your level of anxiety.
When you acknowledge and challenge these exaggerations, anxiety lessens. As with learning any new skill, changing the way you think takes time and practice, but in the end it is well worth it.
3. Face anxiety
Although it may sound counterintuitive, turning and facing anxiety is the final step in ultimately managing this emotion. By shifting your relationship with anxiety and actually seeking it out, you can forever change how it affects you.
Due to the very nature of anxiety, it causes you to exaggerate what it is you are trying to avoid, and/or it makes you feel you are unable to cope with the feared situation. I often compare anxiety to the “monster in the closet” or to the harmless “man behind the curtain” in the movie The Wizard of Oz.
Certainly, facing anxiety is much easier said than done, but when the first two steps are followed, this final step can be accomplished with less difficulty.
Managing anxiety is no easy task, but choosing to live with the damage and emotional pain it causes is a poor alternative. By following the three steps above, you can make significant progress in the battle with anxiety.
Those who become skilled at understanding their anxiety, changing the way they think about it, and managing their avoidance are ultimately rewarded with lasting freedom from this difficult emotion.
Ernest Schmidt, LCSW, is a therapist and the founder of Palo Alto Therapy. As a results-oriented practice, Palo Alto Therapy stands apart by specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety including panic, obsessive compulsive disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Takeaway points: Running away from anxiety is only going to exacerbate the problem. Taking a breath and facing it will allow you to change your thoughts so you can change your life.
How do you manage anxiety in your life?