You have what we call, generalized anxiety disorder,” my doctor said.
After years of unending worry, I had decided to talk to my doctor about what I’d been feeling. I always felt worried about things going wrong and people being angry with me. Other people seemed so much more relaxed than me. Why? Was there a different way of thinking? Was there a different way to handle stress?
And while sometimes my anxiety still gets the best of me, and every day can be a HUGE challenge, once I accepted I was a naturally anxious person and began learning to work with it instead of against it, my life improved greatly.
You may feel the same way, thinking: “Oh I wish I wasn’t so nervous on dates,” or, “Why can’t I just be ready to go for that job interview?”; or, “Why do I incessantly worry about needless crap?”
But everyone feels anxiety, it’s just that some people are better at dealing with it and turning it into positive action, whereas others get paralyzed by it and worry about things for days.
How can you learn to embrace anxiety?
1. “Being anxious and being excited feel eerily similar”
One day when I was asking a friend for advice on moving abroad, he said this to me. It makes sense: with both excitement and anxiety you feel butterflies in your stomach, you shake or vibrate with energy, and you are anticipating something.
The difference is that one propels you forward, and one keeps you held back in fear.
When you look at something and feel anxious, try to also see the part that could be making you feel excited. In fact, studies have shown that doing this can improve your performance in situations you are worrying about … not to mention the fact that it will make you much happier.
For example, you might get nervous about going on a first date. It makes sense: you want them to like you and you want it to go well. But you’re probably also feeling a tinge of excitement – Could this be a potential relationship? Is the night going to end with you back at someone’s place? Are you going to connect with someone really cool?
Anxiety and excitement often go hand in hand. So, try to focus on excitement as well, when you are feeling anxious.
2. Anxiety shows you things you can improve
Anxiety is very personal. One person can feel extremely anxious in a certain type of situation, while another is perfectly fine. Someone who always does well on tests is probably going to be a bit nervous before taking one, but they know they will do fine. Another person who is always liked in social situations feels nervous about meeting new people, but knows that usually everyone is friendly and there’s no reason to worry.
But if the test-taker isn’t used to socializing and the social dynamo doesn’t study much, OF COURSE they will feel anxiety. They don’t have enough practice in either situation to feel confident. So if you feel lots of anxiety in one area of your life, you can see that as a sign of things you need to work on.
In treating anxiety this way, you can learn to improve as a person.
3. Anxiety and conscientiousness are interconnected
If you are anxious, you probably think about the future a lot. You might be caught up thinking about what will go wrong, what will happen if you say something to offend someone, and what if people get angry with you…
But if you live all your life in the future, you can never enjoy the present, and you are constantly bound to fear. But being conscientious about what you say is good – you want to be well liked and treat people with respect. Also, looking towards the future when you plan is great. This helps you to make sure you don’t run out of money, make a bad decision, or mess up your life!
This foresight can also be used to plan so you decrease your anxiety and do better in life. In fact, scientists have a term for people like this: healthy neurotics – people who are anxious, but don’t let the anxiety control them. They use the anxiety to plan ahead, do the best they can, and then trust that they have done enough preparation for whatever they are trying to achieve or accomplish.
The thing is that if you have anxiety, little things may send you into an unnecessary worry cycle. For example, losing one day of sleep might make you tired the next day, but you won’t die and you can probably still work. Missing the gym once might set you back incredibly slightly on your fitness goals, but in the long run, it won’t matter much.
Having foresight and being conscientious are both incredibly desirable features – just not when they paralyze you. To help yourself, you can take small steps towards things you feel scared about, and you’ll see that even if something goes “wrong”, you will still be OK.
For example, you could take a day off from the gym on purpose. Weigh yourself at the end of the week. Are you still on track to achieve your goal of gaining muscle or losing fat? You probably will be, and this proof discounts your brain’s attempts to predict that bad things will always happen.
Our mind assumes we will keep getting what we’ve always gotten in similar situations, due to emotional memory stored in the part of our brain known as the amygdala. In fact, sometimes it will goad us into making decisions or taking actions to deliberately GET the same result. It does not recognize that we can gain wisdom through experience and age.
Or, if you have never done something before, the brain will project negatively, (making an assumption that in the future something bad will happen), to try to achieve priority number one: keeping you alive.
But we don’t live in a time of dinosaurs and tigers anymore. Most ‘dangers’ are not actually that dangerous and we can, if our fears come true, recover from a social embarrassment or financial loss.
4. Anxious moments are opportunities to practice valuable skills
Before approaching that attractive person, delivering that important speech, or taking that test, you know how you’re likely to feel. Your palms will be sweating, your heart starts to beat faster, your chest tightens, you have a billion thoughts racing in your head, and maybe you need to use the restroom….
This is all being triggered by your body recognizing the flight, fight, or freeze response as danger.
You can get rid of anxiety in two ways: not doing the thing (avoiding the moment or event that causes the anxiety), or pushing through (since afterwards, the anxiety will have come and passed).
It is in the moments of choosing to push through that you can practice valuable skills that propel you forward in life.
One of the worst things people suffering from anxiety can think is that because of the anxiety they can’t or shouldn’t do something. For example, they shouldn’t ask for a raise, they shouldn’t stand up for themselves, or they shouldn’t talk to people. Sure, not doing these things might make the anxiety go away, but this also leads to HEAPS of regret, guilt, and keeps you from growing in life.
So when you get anxious, try supportive self-talk, such as, “After we do this, we can take a break and I’ll buy you lunch”, or, “It will be OK, I know you can do it”, or, “You’ll feel better for doing this, and you will grow”, and “I believe in you”. This might seem airy-fairy, but self-talk can make or break you, and the most successful people replace negative self-talk with positive alternatives. They offer offer unconditional support to themselves as much as they can, even during times when they think they are bad or they’ve screwed up.
You can also extend this to learning how to meditate and breathe deeply. In anxious moments, our shoulders rise and tighten, our neck cranes forward, and we want to close ourselves off – It’s a defensive posture which happens in preparation for attack. Instead, you want to learn how to slow down your breathing and breathe deeply, relaxing bodily tension. The mind and body are intimately connected, so if one relaxes, so will the other.
If you are like me, a great deal of your anxiety stems from being a Type-A, high achieving person who is continuously hard on themselves when things don’t get done. We over-achievers need to learn that there’s always another day to do work, important things will get done, (we’ll find a way), and it’s never worth the stress. We are so kind to our best friends, but why not to ourselves?
If you need more reasons to be self-compassionate, multiple studies (Breines, et.al., Rohleder, et.al.) have shown that self-compassion has been linked to lower levels of inflammation-induced stress. This kind of stress can lead to health issues like cardiovascular problems, and cancer.
5. Pushing through anxiety demonstrates great strength and courage. It is not a sign of weakness
I think this is something we all forget.
It’s easy to give in to fear and anxiety and not do the things we are scared of. It’s far easier than pushing through and risking personal rejection. It’s always easier not to rock the boat.
But it can also be incredibly dangerous, leading to a life of frustration, boredom, aggravation, and feeling like you aren’t living how you should be.
Pushing through your anxiety can be INCREDIBLY difficult, and it can take a lot of mental strength and courage. But it’s worth it to strive for what you want, whether that be in personal relationships, work, travel, or another aspect of your life.
You should commend yourself every time you do something that scares you. Give yourself lots of positive support. Buy yourself a small gift. Relax for a bit.
I know from personal experience that dealing with anxiety can be incredibly difficult, and some days you just want to give up. Some days it’s easier to just not push… and that’s OK. But with only one life to live, you need to begin breaking through your barriers to get what you want, even if this is achieved small step by small step.
Anxiety doesn’t go away. You will just get used to it over time and learn how to deal with it more effectively.
As you face your fears and learn tools that can help you to make friends with your anxiety, it will eventually lose it’s power to control how you live your life.