Tips for overcoming your anxiety
What is anxiety?
To overcome anxiety, we first need to understand what it is. A helpful definition by Neenan and Dryden is as follows - "anxiety is based on future-orientated thinking that encompasses themes of danger or threat where you will feel vulnerable in some way".
So why is this helpful? If we can recognise that our anxiety is based on thinking about the future, then this means we can do something to overcome it.
Anxiety is the emotional response to the appraisal of something that is stimulating your fear response. You may experience a whole range of physical responses such as sweating, shaking, legs turning to jelly, and then you might react by running away or avoiding the situation (flight), hitting out (fight) or being unable to move (freeze). This happens as you evaluate the situation as threatening, and the good news is that we can put a whole range of strategies in place to overcome some of these reactions.
Six top tips for overcoming anxiety
1. Change your thinking
When we start to think that a catastrophe is about to happen, does this mean that the catastrophe is actually going to happen, or is it just a thought that comes into our head? We might think "what if I forget my words in the presentation?", or "what if he doesn't like me?", and these catastrophising thoughts ramp up the feelings of anxiety.
We can challenge our thinking and turn it around. We can think "if I forget my words in the presentation then I can take a deep breath and check my notes; it is not the end of the world". If I think to myself, for example, "he may not agree with all my opinions but that does not necessarily mean I have to think he does not like me", then the anxiety reduces.
2. Use coping self-statements
Next time you experience anxiety, what can you say to yourself that would move you forward into coping with the situation? When I start to deliver training to over 50 people, I always experience handshaking, for example, for the first few minutes. That is me having an emotional and physical response to my appraisal that talking in front of 50 people is pretty scary! So, my coping self-statement is "my hand will probably shake but after a couple of minutes it will steady, so I just won't trying to hold a cup of anything in that time". This coping self-statement reassures me that I am going to feel anxious and my hand will probably shake as a result of me perceiving the fear/threat, but I am going to be OK, so I can put a strategy in place.
Have a go at trying a coping self-statement - make it something realistic but also reassuring.
3. Use self-compassion
It's a natural thing to get anxious, as it helps to protect you, but when it stops you from doing things then it is over-protecting you. One way to overcome anxiety is to use self-acceptance and compassion. What would a friend say? They would say you are doing well.
So rather than putting yourself down, big yourself up! If you think to yourself "it is preferable that I pass my driving test, and I will give it my best shot" rather than self-downing yourself with "I am terrible at driving, I will never pass" and getting anxious, which one is more likely to have a positive outcome?
4. Facing it and doing it anyway
There is evidence to show that we can cope and overcome our anxiety if we continue to push through situations that are tricky for us. If we avoid them then, unfortunately, we are likely to keep feeling anxiety and we won't change. Ellis, in his book 'Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You', shares how he had social anxiety. What he determined to do was to approach people and talk to them. Even though this induced a whole range of anxiety, he kept doing this. Some people rejected him, some talked to him, but at the end of a month of setting himself this target, he shared how he completely lost his social anxiety.
One way to face it and do it anyway is to take small steps towards it. You might find, for example, public transport difficult, and imagine that you are going to faint on the underground in London. You recognise that you are going into anxiety when you get on the tube, and you start experiencing tightness of breath, sweating palms, and experience thinking that catastrophises the situation. So if you try one tube stop and get off, rather than a whole journey, then you start to take steps towards tolerating the whole experience. If you try making one stop at a time and then increase the number of stops, eventually you will find that you are doing a whole journey. Combine some of the other tips with this to enable yourself to cope with each stop. Eventually, if you tolerate that which makes you anxious, your anxiety levels will go down.
You can only breathe for here and now; you can't breathe in the past and you can't breathe for the future. Tune into our breath and say to ourselves "I am breathing in, I am breathing out". Our brains are wired so that we can focus on our breathing in this way, so there is no room for anxious thoughts. Tune into the breath at times of anxiety.
6. Find support
Who has got your back? We all have a drop in confidence and have anxiety at some time in our lives, but talking it through can be helpful. We can also go one step further and see our 'supporter' there with us, giving us reassurance and positive affirmation.
These are just a few tips, but the important thing is to recognise that we have the power to recognise when we are going into anxiety, and by focusing on strategies, manage it and come out the other side even stronger.
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