A Guide to Dealing With Anxiety
Dealing With Anxiety – an Introduction
More people in the UK are dealing with anxiety now than ever before. In a 2014 NHS survey, an average of 5.9% of people were recorded with an anxiety disorder – this is up 1.5% since the previous NHS survey in 2007. Anxiety is much more likely to affect women, especially younger women. The problem is likely to get worse.
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, these statistics provide little comfort. I wrote this article to offer some practical advice for actually dealing with anxiety. What follows are the interventions that I have seen work for my life coaching clients, and those which I have found increased mental fortitude generally. My goal is to make anyone feel less anxious and more tranquil, whether you suffer from an anxiety disorder or just feel anxious from time to time. Look at this guide not so much as a way of dealing with anxiety, but rather as a way of growing mental robustness.
What is Anxiety
Anxiety is the feeling of unease all people feel about certain bad outcomes that might happen. Everyone feels anxious from time to time, and it is a useful response to real dangers which may lurk in the potential future. If we feel anxious about something, we might take action to prevent it. Some people feel the sensation of anxiety over the slightest thing, and the intensity of the emotion is painfully deep. At this point, learning to deal with anxiety becomes necessary.
Anxiety is a symptom for social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, panic disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In this article, I will explore strategies and tactics for dealing with anxiety itself.
Do Hard Things
Increasing mental fortitude is the fastest way I know to deal with anxiety. Mental fortitude is like a muscle. The more we practice doing hard things, the more the muscle grows. Conversely, if we shelter ourselves from frightening things, the muscle for dealing with them becomes weaker, and so less and less frighting things can make you feel anxious. This creates a negative cycle, and eventually even small things can set off feelings of anxiety.
I have noticed that people generally want to shelter anxious people. It’s understandable. When we see someone we care about suffering, we want to make them feel better, and it seems kind of obvious that we should remove the threatening things which cause them to feel anxious. Unfortunately, this is a reliable recipe to make that person feel even more anxious.
If you want to become more mentally robust, the way to do it is by facing frightening things. Just as a bodybuilder wishing to become strong must lift heavy weights, so too must a person seeking mental toughness seeks challenges. Setting goals and achieving them is an excellent way to do this. I always recommend my life coaching clients choose goals with 80-90% chance of success. This way you give yourself an easy win, but it’s not so easy that you rob yourself of the feeling of accomplishment and pride as you achieve them. As your mental robustness increases, you can find harder and more intimidating things to go pursue.
In the Arthurian legends, the Knights of the Round Table were charged with finding the Holy Grail. Each Knight searched for the grail by entering the dark forest where it was most dark to them. That which you seek to find will be found where you least wish to look. You will cultivate the most strength by finding challenges which terrify you the most, then overcoming them. If you have a fear of snakes, get a pet snake. If you fear public speaking, join a speaker’s group. The harder the challenge is to you, the more growth the challenge contains, and the better you will deal with your anxiety.
Let’s be absolutely clear: to feel less anxious, you must seek out hard things. To feel more anxious, shield yourself from anything challenging.
A great way to deal with anxiety that I use with my clients is a process called systematic desensitisation. Systematic desensitisation was originally proposed as a treatment for phobias, and it’s one of the interventions from modern clinical psychology with a great track record for success.
- Here’s how systematic desensitisation works for someone with a spider phobia:
- Place a picture of a spider across the room. See how anxious you feel then wait… As time passes, the anxiety will recede.
- When you are so comfortable with the picture that you are bored, move it closer.
- Once you are comfortable with a picture of a spider, build up to a tiny real spider.
- Then, when looking at the tiny spider becomes easy, try holding it with a glove. Then without.
- And so on…
- Until eventually, you are holding a giant tarantula and it presents no issue whatsoever.
You can use systematic desensitisation to deal with your own anxiety. Find the thing which makes you feel most anxious, then break it down into the smallest chunk possible, then go face it. Bit by bit, start increasing the intensity of the anxiety provoking stimulus until you are comfortable dealing with the most extreme forms of it. For example, if you feel anxious in large groups of people, find a way to interact in a group of three people. Then, build up over time until you are happily talking, mingling and occasionally slipping up in a giant networking event.
Once again, we see the core of this strategy is to turn and face into the issue – to embrace discomfort and create mastery in that state. Don’t wish for things to be easier, wish for you to be stronger.
I have used systematic desensitisation with my life clients who have problems with anxiety – and with great success. I invite you to give it a go. It will be tough at first, but that’s the point!
Get a Serious Physical Fitness Routine
I know of few ways to combat low moods or anxiety than physical exercise. If you want to really combat these things, train hard! Not only does physical fitness have a long list of health benefits, but it’s also a tough challenge which presents a path to mental robustness. Put together a solid training program and you will look terrific, grow your self-esteem, and feel less anxious.
I recommend building up to one workout every day. Make the exercise a mix of strength training, cardio and mobility work like gymnastics or yoga.
If you want to really tackle your anxiety, then opt for harder workouts with more ambitious targets. The more you willingly move towards hardship, the more practised you become in dealing with it.
An excellent example of this type of attitude can be seen in the special forces. The goal when selecting and training members of special forces teams is to make them reliably unphased in the most challenging of all situations. They use physical training as a means to do this, pushing their troops to ever more heroic physical challenges. Their physical training increases their mental robustness, and it can for you too.
“I Can Handle It”
When you feel anxious, there’s this idea that you can’t handle some terrifying outcome. You worry and worry about this outcome, and the more you worry, the more you worry.
The way to beat this is to say, ‘I can handle it’. Whenever you find yourself worrying about some unbearable outcome, quickly resolve that if it did happen, you would muscle through and be OK. And it’s true. People have survived and thrived in far worse circumstances. By saying that you can handle it, you immediately adopt a heroic attitude which deflates the feedback loop of worry which fuels anxiety. You already know that by worrying about worrying, your anxiety will increase, so experiment with accepting whatever the future may bring. By accepting fate, you reduce your worrying about it.
It’s worth noting that the object of fear which drives much of anxiety rarely happens. Ironically, if the object of your fears happened a lot, you would be presented with a tough challenge, and by spending time in this challenge, you would cultivate the mental robustness which deals with anxiety.
Lots of people who experience anxiety are worried about losing control. The mere idea of losing control cannot be tolerated at any cost. Keeping control of all things at all times is impossible, and the attempt to do so will drive anxiety. Instead, surrender. Understand that you may lose control, and if that happens, you can handle it.
The next time you feel anxious, may your mantra be ‘I can handle it.’
NoFap is internet slang for quitting masturbation. Bear with me on this one, because it’s an effective way to deal with anxiety.
For many of my clients who have successfully removed their anxiety and filled their life with a steely tranquillity, NoFap was a massive part of that. Ask any of them, and they would tell you that quitting masturbation makes them able to handle life’s challenges much more easily. In fact, the community of people who practice NoFap online, frequently report reduction of anxiety as one of the most noticeable benefits for this practice.
Like so many of these anxiety defeating interventions, starting NoFap has so many other benefits, which include:
- Increased energy
- Increased motivation
- More profound creativity
- Increased mood
- Deeper excitement about life
Though I have always managed my own anxiety reasonably well, I know I feel vastly less anxious when I am practising NoFap.
Anxiety for many can be characterised by having fearful thoughts about some undesirable future. This fear of what might happen builds and builds. You start to worry about the worrying itself. The whole thing is rather like a microphone placed next to a speaker, with the sound going round and round, feeding into itself, until the noise becomes deafening.
In meditation, the opposite is true. Here you sit quietly, and when a thought comes in you gently bring your awareness back to the centre. The more you do this, the more the principle of centred thought grows inside you.
These two mind sets are polar opposites. The former leads to chaotic pain; whereas, the latter leads to order and tranquillity. Furthermore, these two mindsets are mutually exclusive – where one exists, the other cannot.
Implementing a daily meditation practice, then, can pull your mind away from the compulsive thinking about thinking characteristic of anxiety, and into a clam state of centred awareness. The evidence I have seen from my own life, the results from my clients, and the research out there all suggests that meditation makes an effective intervention for beating anxiety. And guess what, there are a ton of positive side effects too, such as increased happiness, resistance to some diseases and a greater appreciation of life and beauty.
I often invite my clients who suffer from anxiety to take 20 minutes a day for meditation every day. I also think that a yearly or quarterly meditation retreat is a serious way to deal with anxiety, and wonderful for deepening your meditation skill.
Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant
You were thinking of a pink elephant, right? During my hypnosis training, I learned that the mind cannot process negatives. If you say, ‘Don’t think about your left hand.’ your awareness is brought to your left hand. The consciousness in that area is enlivened and deepened. If you hear a negative sentence, it will bring your attention to that subject, not diminish it, and attention is brought away from all other possible points of focus.
In the fray of anxiety, you are obsessing over the nightmare event that you must resist at all costs. The mental talk is often something like ‘Don’t start shaking, don’t start shaking…’ Remember not thinking about the pink elephant? When you think to not start shaking, you awareness is brought to the idea of muscle shakiness. Furthermore, as you obsess and obsess about the shaky muscles, and fuel this obsessive thinking with neurotic emotional energy, the muscles start to shake. This fuels more shaking, which pumps more energy into the system, until you are shaking uncontrollably and having a panic attack. Every anxious person I have questioned expresses this type of obsessive thinking when their anxiety peaks.
The worst part is, this type of auto-suggestion forms the foundation of hypnosis and the placebo effect, so you are actually employing this miraculous energy to anxious ends.
Here’s how to fix it. Suppose you fear your hands might shake, then place your consciousness into ‘strong’, ‘steady’, ‘stable’. If you are a footballer worrying you will miss the goal, instead of thinking ‘don’t miss’, think, ‘in the goal’, or, ‘nice clean shot’. This way the same hypnotic powers which drive the realisations of your worst nightmares, now channel themselves into creating your dreams. Every inch of power you have for self destruction, you also have for creation. The distinction is made by choosing to shine the light of your awareness on the positive outcome. Attempting to not think about the unpleasant outcome will only enliven it.
If keeping your focus is a struggle, then get a daily meditation practice. This will expand your capacity to direct your attention, even under stress.
Stop Writing Tragic Poetry
Keep your anxiety mostly to yourself, and stop wearing it as a perverse badge of honour. I have seen many anxious people make a big fuss and drama about their own delicate sensibilities, often with the implication that people must tiptoe around their ever lengthening list of ‘triggers’.
Not only is this attitude a little tyrannical, since you are subtly using guilt to bully others into living in line with your beliefs, but it damages your own opportunity to grow. Talking excessively about your anxiety gives you an identity as an anxious person, which you have to keep up. This anxious identity may also give you some kind of importance or sympathy or standing in the group. The last thing you want to do is attach your social validity or sense of self worth to your anxiety, yet many do.
I do believe talking about your anxiety, privately, to one or two trusted allies is a critically important thing. Having a friend to share sensitive things and deepen your understanding of your anxiety will help massively. I invite you to see the distinction between private conversations with one or two people and proudly telling the world about your ‘issues’. I feel this insight is particularly valuable in 2018 / 2019, where a hierarchy based on sensibility appears to be forming – particularly on some university campuses. In this hierarchy of sensibility, the more disadvantaged you are, the more standing you receive in that perverse system. Anxiety will be used by some to achieve social standing. The negative implications here are obvious.
Make Fun of Anxiety
If you want to make your anxiety worse, deal with the issue in only the most hushed and sacred tones. Just like the citizens of Hogwarts cannot directly name Voldemort, by not directly facing your anxiety, you give it power.
The best way I know to grapple with dark and difficult subjects is with the use of comedy. Instead of tiptoeing around your anxiety, make fun of it. Let’s face it, falling into the depths of panic by some truly arbitrary stimulus has a funny side – embrace it. If you choose to make light of your anxiety, you start to grapple with it, and when you grapple with it, you start to fix things. By laughing at anxiety, you also learn to tackle the subject with a lose and easy going sort of energy. Conversely, if you cannot bear to look at your anxiety, it will grow in the shadows. Daylight is the best disinfectant.
In my coaching practice, I have found dark comedy to be hugely valuable for dealing with difficult to discuss subjects. Often it is the only way we can broach the most painful subjects. Almost always, the humour itself is hilarious for both coach and client. Every time we laugh at a gigantic, taboo, crippling problem, it becomes vastly easier to deal with.
Some may think that making fun of anxiety is insensitive. To answer this criticism, I say the intention behind the action counts, not the action itself. If two friends are lovingly making fun of one’s anxiety in an attempt to deal with it and bring more happiness into the world, the intention is surely good – even though a taboo has been crossed. Fastidiously polite individuals possessed by the spirit of malice and destruction also exist (try navigating United States airport security for an excellent example of this).
The Easy Fixes
Here are a few quick and easy fixes to help you deal with anxiety.
I can’t tell you how many coaching sessions involve me fixing the catastrophically bad sleeping patterns of my clients. So many people aren’t getting enough sleep (a minimum of 7 hours). If you compromise your sleep, life deteriorates.
For many, fixing your anxiety is as simple as getting enough sleep every night. It’s an easy thing to fix, and so many other things in your life will also improve when you do.
Humans are intensely social animals. One of the tragic criticisms of Western culture is the breaking down of social ties. It’s common to find people in our culture who cannot call on one single friend in an emergency. Amongst the other disastrous effects of isolation, it will increase one’s anxiety.
Get out and socialise more. It is part of what makes us human, and it reduces anxiety.
Coffee is a fantastic drug with many positive attributes. However, for some people, it can cause anxiety. If anxiety is troubling you, experiment with reducing your coffee intake, or changing the varieties you enjoy.
A smoking habit can cause anxiety. Quitting smoking can lead to more feelings of calm and increased mood. Plus, your body is generally much healthier if you don’t smoke.
Quitting smoking has the benefit of being a hard challenge, and accomplishing hard challenges will increase self esteem.
Things to Avoid
In general, avoiding things which make you uncomfortable will make anxiety worse. That said, I have included a couple of things that probably should be avoided to improve anxiety. If you happen upon these things, it’s cool, you can handle it. …But avoid them if you can.
Empty Praise and 8th Place Medals
It is commonly understood that self esteem can be bestowed on another by telling them how great they are. This is rarely true. Self esteem comes from choosing a hard challenge and going about achieving it. Sincere compliments from others which remark on your genuine achievements may well increase self esteem. You know how hard you worked, and you can see in the eyes of your friend that they are impressed.
Telling someone they are great without any proper reason is an effective way to destroy self esteem. This practice can falsely inflate the ego of the recipient, and create a sense that they don’t need to undergo the difficult challenges of personal development, and so are prevented from undertaking the challenges which can grow real self esteem. Furthermore, anxious people can read lies too. When someone tells another they are great without meaning it, the recipient knows on a deep level that the compliment is false. This type of false compliment will do damage to self esteem, not grow it.
There is a growing culture of awarding children medals for 8th place, or telling them they are perfect just the way they are. If you get a medal for any finishing place, and you are already perfect, why try harder? The sad result of this perverse philosophy is that children don’t try harder, and instead of expanding their psyche out to new, heroic frontiers, they shrivel up into themselves and become ever more threatened by the world. It is helpful to remember that the above two statements are lies. 8th place isn’t a victory. We all have personal development to work through and are far from perfect.
Anxiety rates are increasing in the West. I wonder if the prevalence of empty praise in our schools has had some role in this.
The guiding principle for any anxious person must be ‘I can handle it’, and to seek challenging situations out. However, there is something about being attacked online which seems to hijack people’s sensitivity to threat. For many, the critical nature of social media will be an engine for anxiety and sadness.
Social media platforms are so similar to traditional social interaction that they push some of our social buttons – but not others. Social media is to socialising what sugar is to nutrition. It’s nearly the same, but lacking key elements. Getting ganged up on social media by strangers who are often unchained from their moral responsibility for polite discourse can hyper-stimulate a person’s sense of threat and defensiveness. The layout of social media is something we just did not evolve with, and so has the capacity to push our emotional buttons whilst not providing some of the balancing forces.
Don’t box yourself off from life, including places online. However, I invite you to recognise the capacity for social media to make a person anxious.