You’ve been working on the presentation for weeks, sweating and preparing and fine-tuning it till it feels just right. You know what you have to say makes sense and is really impressive but as the time draws closer for you to you take the podium you feel a mounting sense of dread, your palms start to sweat, you start to doubt your knowledge of the material, you can feel your heart beating in your throat and your body starts to shake. You slowly feel the opportunity of you getting your vision across melting into a pool of overwhelming emotions and a body that doesn’t feel under your control! The experience of feeling anxious is profoundly disabling and incapacitating. For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious it literally disrupts, restricts and sabotages our capacity to express who we are and impact on the world. This article will explore strategies for managing the day to day experience of anxiety.
The first step in any process of managing your anxiety in the moment is to develop your awareness around it. Note the language I am using. Anxiety is a separate entity and it is helpful to recognize it as such. You are not anxiety and labelling yourself as “Just an anxious person” places you in a space of passivity and surrender. Rather recognizing that YOU are experiencing anxiety or feeling anxious allows you to start to manage it in a more empowered and constructive way. So now that you have an awareness of anxiety as a separate “beast” the next step in your day to day management is to start to identify what this beast looks like.
As discussed in a previous article, anxiety is generated and maintained by the cyclical influence that anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviours have on one other. If unchecked these interlinked anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviors feed into each other and fuel the experience of anxiety. By asking yourself the following questions you can start to get a handle on your anxiety: when do I experience anxiety, what do I feel, what do I think, how does my body react and how do I attempt to cope with feeling anxious? It’s also really helpful to start to rate from 1 to 10 the level of anxiety you experience across the day or in different situations, with 10 being the highest level of anxiety. In other words, just start to notice and define the experience of feeling anxious. Just recognize it at this point. You are not trying to change it or control it. In fact a really important part of this awareness is accepting it. In not accepting it you start to feel anxious about feeling anxious which makes it even more overwhelming. Ideally its best to write down your observations but even simply noticing and defining the experience will aid in you getting a handle on it. Continue this process of self-monitoring as you start to implement strategies to manage anxious feelings.
The next step is to start to identify and implement strategies that will contain and ideally reduce your experience of anxiety. These strategies primarily tackle the thoughts and behaviors associated with feeling anxious. There are a plethora of tools and techniques available and any Internet search will reveal an enormous resource pool in this regard. You want to make sure that you include at least one technique focusing on your bodily response, which often are based on managing your breathing, and one focusing on your thoughts. While there are many techniques out there I will showcase one technique focused on cognition – thought replacement.
A key way to assist yourself in coping with anxiety is to help yourself control the thoughts relating to difficult events. You can start to monitor patterns and trends of thought that may be contributing to your anxiety. This means helping yourself to identify the thoughts that accompany feeling anxious. These thought patterns can then be monitored and modified as outlined below:
- When feeling anxious identify the thoughts that accompany these circumstances.
- Deepen your knowledge of these thoughts and associated negative deeply held beliefs. Inaccurate thoughts are characterized by over generalized blanket statements, catastrophic thinking and strong negative statements using language such as “always”, “should”, “must” or “never” (e.g. I am going to die, I am a failure, I will never succeed ).
- Become aware of the impact this thought has on your feelings, body and behavior.
- Ask yourself is the thought useful? Is it accurate in the current situation? Is it overly generalized and rigid? Ask yourself is this thought True, False or do you simply not know whether it is true or false.
- Replace these kinds of overgeneralized, catastrophic, negative thoughts with situation specific, realistically positive self-talk that reflects openness to alternative scenarios. You want to state the truth of the situation for yourself (e.g. I will survive, I can succeed).
You may initially find yourself using this technique following as opposed to during a highly challenging situation. As you become more familiar with your own internal dialogue, you will become more and more able to control negative thoughts in the height of anxiety generating experiences.
All techniques for managing anxiety require practice and may need to be initially rehearsed outside of the anxiety provoking experience and may require additional support such as the help of a therapist. Feeling anxious becomes an automatic way of responding and changing that response through awareness and modifying thoughts and bodily responses requires persistence and practice. The longer you persist at these strategies the more success you will experience and feeling anxious will become something you are more able to contain and manage.
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise. Take a look at her LinkedIn profile