Anxiety can be debilitating. It can follow you anywhere and strike at any time. This article will teach you the tools you need to relieve anxiety in 6 Steps. It also includes two real world examples to help you understand the principles and jump-start your own improvement!
Step 1: Put on the Brakes
When you are having issues with anxiety your mind can start going out of control thinking about what-ifs and worst case scenarios. You start imagining that the bad things you are thinking about are already happening or you feel convinced that they are certain to happen. Your mind is like a speeding car going from one bad thought to another and gaining momentum. It is time to put on the brakes and slow down! Stop what you are doing, go to a quiet place where you can be alone, and sit or lay in a comfortable position. Breath slowly and deeply - bringing your focus to your breath. You may find that you are clenching your jaw or shoulders, so try to consciously relax each part of your body as you settle into breathing. As you breath inward tell yourself an affirmation and as you exhale give yourself an opportunity to let a little bit of the stress go from your mind and your body. Keep trying different phrases until you find one that works for you!
Breathing in: I breath in calm
Breathing out: I breath out stress
Breathing in: I am safe
Breathing out: I let go of my fear
It might feel counter-intuitive to slow down when your body is screaming that it needs to do something. Those are our primal instincts kicking in with a flight-or-fight response when stress-related hormones hit our systems. And that is exactly what we are designed to do. But we don't need our muscles like we did in our caveman days. What we need is our most powerful tool - our mind! When you slow things down you will be able to think much more clearly, and that will put your in a better position to handle the situation.
Step 2: Identify the Worry
When you have anxiety you are thinking something that is making you feel worried. You may not even realize that you are having thoughts. You may experience anxiety primarily as a physical or an emotional stress. You might unexpectedly snap at someone or have a breakdown that you didn't see coming. But the root cause of anxiety is in the thoughts that we are thinking, and finding those thoughts is the second step. For some issues the thought is very simple and straight-forward. For others you have to do some digging. You might have to take on the role of an investigator asking the Five W's: who, what, when, where, and why. Why am I having anxiety? Who tends to trigger my anxiety? What kind of thoughts am I thinking? Where and when do I tend to have anxiety? You can use the answers to those questions as tools to try to get to the root cause. You might not want to face that thought, but awareness is the first step to improvement, so try to be open and let the thoughts come to you. So what exactly is it that you are worried about?
Step 3: Draw The Line
Once you have slowed down enough to regain control of your mind and have identified your worry it is time for the third step: drawing the line. This means drawing a line between what you CAN and what you CAN'T control in relation to the topic that is causing the anxiety. Another way of thinking about it is drawing a line between what you are and are not responsible for. I can control what I can control and those are the things that I am responsible for. It is important that you don't take on responsibility or the illusion of control over something that you don't have control over. You can't control other peoples thoughts, actions, words, or emotions (you may think you can, but you really can't). You can't control natural circumstances such as the weather or germs or mosquitoes from existing (unfortunately!). Clearly separating the two gives you the opportunity to focus on the things that you can influence or control and also gives you the opportunity to let go of and accept the things that you can't.
Step 4: Define Success
This is an overlooked step that will make a big difference in managing anxiety. You need to define success in relation to your worry and in terms of the things that are within your power to control. I am going to say it again because it is that important. Success needs to be defined based on your own personal thoughts and opinions, and in terms of the items on your CAN control list. You can't tie your success up in factors outside of your control such as other people's actions, feelings, or in receiving something from another person.
Step 5: Make a Plan
One of the reasons that we worry is because worrying seems productive. It feels like we are doing something. But the truth is that that something is stressing ourselves out rather than making the situation better. We need to look at our list of can-control items and our definition of success and then make a plan to do what is in our power to reduce the chance that our worry item will happen. The plan might include new daily habits or increased communication. It might include writing reminders on your calendar or creating a daily/weekly/monthly schedule of activities. Now you have looked through your CAN-DO list and made a game plan for how to meet those items to the best of your ability to meet your image of success. You have scheduled them at explicit times on your to-do list. Now you can sit back and only worry about one step at a time and focus only on the items that need done now.
Step 6: Letting Go
I think that the saying is a little trite, but it is true that ultimately "control is an illusion". We can't foresee or change the future. We can't always prevent bad things from happening even with the best plans or the best intentions. We don't always get what we want when we want it, or sometimes we don't get what we want ever. I think that it is important to accept that fact. Another way of looking at it is that within ANY person's life there will be good and bad events. Positive and negative emotions. Good days and bad days. Good and bad relationships. Making space for the bad as well as the good will help you to weather the ups and downs with a lot more peace. It is a part of life and that is okay. It doesn't mean you don't deserve it or that you didn't try hard enough, so don't be too hard on yourself. At some point you may need to let go of the thing you are working towards and make a new plan. And that's okay too.
All we can do is to do our best, to try to do what we can to prevent bad things from happening, and to make space for and to accept the things that are outside of our control.
Social Anxiety - Example #1
Jesse has high social anxiety. When he thinks about meeting new people his pulse races, his cheeks flush, and he gets a nauseating or sinking feeling in his stomach. He is a really nice and personable person, but he still tries to avoid social gatherings or meeting new people. Jesse got invited to go to a party with some old friends from school, but it is the day of and he is struggling with anxiety and debating whether or not he should go. Let's see him go through to the 6 Steps to Ease Anxiety:
1) Put on the breaks. He calms himself down by sitting in a chair and counting his breathing. He tries to draw in long and slow breaths counting from one to six as he breaths in and one to six as he breaths out. At first he can only count to three but as he continues to count his breathing he starts to relax until he feels more calm.
2) Identify the worry. Jesse looks for the thought that is causing the anxiety. He lets down his guard and allows himself be honest with himself. He is afraid that other people won't like him or the way he looks. That they might make fun of him. He is afraid of experiencing pain from not being accepted by other people.
3) Draw the line. Jesse knows that he can't control what other people think of him. That people are going to have their own opinion of him whether he likes it or not. The lack of control makes him feel afraid. But he searches for what he does have control over in this situation. He does have control over how he thinks of himself, how he looks, and how he acts.
4) Define success. Jesse decides to define success in this situation as showing up as the best version of himself at the party. For Jesse that means looking clean and presentable and being a good listener.
5) Make a plan. To look presentable Jesse picks out clothes he feels confident in and takes a shower and shaves before he leaves. He plans to listen to other people's stories without interrupting and to ask follow up questions to make sure other people know that he is paying attention.
6) Let go. Jesse knows that he cannot control what other people think of him. What he can do is show up as himself and hope that people will like him. He has a definition of success that brings him enough security to be okay with showing up and is trying his best to learn to let go of worrying about what other people think of him.
Parental Anxiety - Example #2
Mary is a working mom with two children. She struggles to get the kids ready in time for school and goes to work after she drops them off. After she picks them up from school she works from home on her laptop. She often picks up fast food for dinner or let's the kids eat whatever is in the fridge. She feels anxiety as a constant weight on her shoulders. It feels heavy and oppressive, and she has trouble sleeping at night. She wakes up tired and often snaps at the kids when they are not ready in time. After the latest episode of yelling she feels guilty and out-of-control. She goes to the 6 Steps to Ease Anxiety:
1) Put on the breaks. She makes sure the kids are okay, goes into the bathroom and makes herself a hot bath. She lays in the water and focuses on her breathing. As she breaths in she tells herself that she and the kids are okay. As she breathes out she tries to release the stress she has been holding in. As she starts to relax she cries tears of frustration, but she tries to maintain focus on her breathing as she releases the pent up stress.
2) Identify the worry. Mary isn't sure what exactly is wrong. It just feels like her whole life is out of whack. She has to investigate to learn more about the source of her anxiety. She looks at the Five W's (who, what, where, when, why). She feels like her kids are stressing her out. That she hates the morning routine. That she hates yelling at the kids. She often feels guilty at dinner time after work. Her life feels like a mess and that she isn't doing a good job as a mother. Aha! Here it is. The source of her worry is ultimately that she is thinking that she is a bad mother or doing a bad job.
3) Draw the line. Mary doesn't have a choice about going to work. She needs to work in order to provide for her family. But she does have control over their routine, the food that they eat, and the way that she treats the kids when she is getting agitated.
4) Define success. She decides to define success as a parent as providing healthy meals for her children, not yelling, setting a good schedule, and spending at least 20 minutes of quality time with her kids each day.
5) Make a plan. Mary plans to get herself and the kids up 15 minutes earlier than usual so that there is less rushing in the morning and so that she can prepare a quick but healthy breakfast (yogurt, fruit, and granola). She decides to let the kids take the bus to get to school so that she can leave for work earlier so that she won't need to work from home in the evening. Instead of picking up fast food as a default she will set aside time on Sunday for meal prepping. She sets aside the first 20 minutes when they get home to playing with the kids. She creates a game plan that whenever she is losing her temper she will go into the bedroom and practice her breathing.
6) Let go. Mary has a lot on her plate. She has made a lot of plans to adapt to meet her definition of being a good parent, but she also understands that she is going to have good days and bad days. That she isn't going to be able to do everything all the time. But she feels significantly better knowing that she has identified the source of her anxiety, and that she is doing her best to be a good mom. And at the end of the day our best is all that we can do.
Are you struggling with anxiety? If you want to learn more please reach out to me! You can Schedule a Free Consultation about coaching. I would love to talk with you.
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Happiness & Wellbeing Life Coach
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