Full of adrenaline, I paced the room with a nervous energy that wouldn’t go away. I tried sitting down, but then instead of pacing I began wringing my hands and rubbing my arms and legs. My body seemed confused… searching for a movement, any type of movement, that would release the energy I was carrying. My mind was spinning, and I’m sure at some point my lips actually moved, mumbling in an attempt to process the flood of thoughts swirling through my brain. It started with one thing I was worried about, then snowballed forward into a torrent of unpleasant thoughts that consumed me with fear and worry. The restlessness extended into the night and I could hardly sleep. For some reason I just couldn’t relax.
This might sound quite familiar to anyone who has battled anxiety. According to Dictionary.com, anxiety is defined as “distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.” Extreme forms of anxiety can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweaty palms, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeats, nausea, or dizziness.
Some anxiety is believed to be triggered by medical conditions such as wiring in the brain or genetics. Non-medically induced anxiety can be brought on by external factors, such as things you are deeply afraid of or extremely worried about. In these situations, my personal experience is that the key to moving past the anxiety is to change how you are processing or interpreting the things causing you stress.
I’m not sure if anyone will ever be completely immune to anxiety, but I know from experience that there are certainly things you can do to reduce or eliminate the anxiety you feel at a given time. Below are some steps I have found to be beneficial in reducing anxiety. Keep in mind that I am not a mental health professional, so these strategies are based on my personal experiences and should not be interpreted as professional advice or a substitute for treatment. These are simply some approaches that have been extremely beneficial to me and might help you regain perspective and a sense of peace.
Reducing or Eliminating Non-Medical Anxiety
As a perfectionist who has bouts with anxiety from time to time, I have discovered I can calm it down or even eliminate it by taking certain actions. Here are the things that have worked for me in terms of moving myself past anxiety:
Are You Paying A-tension?: Look Beyond Your Problems
Those of us experiencing anxiety have often become obsessed with our own well-being. Even if we are worried about our loved ones, the true fixation involves avoiding our own pain or loss. There’s a desire to avoid negative outcomes and unhappiness, and our brains go into overdrive trying to think of ways to control the outcomes or feeling guilty about things we are doing or not doing. I call this obsessive focus on things that cause stress and cost you your peace “paying a-tension”. “Paying a-tension” means you are trading your peace-of-mind to focus on things that make you tense, which can lead to anxiety. Below is an example of a pattern of thought I might have when I am experiencing anxiety:
I really need to finish my blog but I have so much work to do for my job. I should probably work tonight…
I don’t want to fall behind on my work and leave a bad impression at the office. Then I might not get promoted. It’s hard to fix a damaged reputation…
I don’t want to let anyone down at work. I’m known for my work ethic and getting things done. Maybe I should get my work done first and then I won’t have to worry about it while I’m writing…
But I have so much to do I might end up working late and then I’ll be too tired to write. That happens all the time and I need to get a blog posted as soon as possible…
Maybe I can just write for 30 minutes… but it’s hard to get into a flow that quickly… and even if I do get into a flow it will be hard for me to stop. I might lose good material if I stop…
If I don’t get a new blog posted soon I might lose traction on page views. Can I even keep this up? Maybe I am taking on too much…
Maybe I should just stop blogging. It takes time away from the kids, and I want to make sure I spend enough time with them. I don’t want to be one of those dads who neglects his kids. That would be selfish…
But I enjoy blogging and I don’t want to give up my passion. Plus, my kids need to see me following my dreams and taking time for myself. I need to take better care of myself…
I should workout more. I am in terrible shape right now. I never have time to go to the gym. I have to do it first thing in the morning or it doesn’t get done. My health comes first. I should go work out now and I’ll write later…
I’m never going to get this blog done if I keep putting it off. I wish I had more time to write. Let me spend some time writing now and I’ll start working out tomorrow…
Crap, the kids don’t have any socks. I need to do laundry. I should put a load in now…
Man this place is a wreck. I need to clean up. This is setting a really bad example for the kids. I have to be a better father than this…
And on and on…
The above is a mild example of a train of thought that can snowball a person into deeper anxiety. It can start with something really simple, but then build into extreme thoughts that lead one to question his or her abilities, decision making, self-worth, and overall life. The desire to avoid negative outcomes and eliminate problems combined with an inability to either influence the situation or choose the next move creates a nervous energy and restlessness that is hard to overcome. However, I have found that the best way to begin calming down Hurricane Anxiety is to pay attention and stop paying a-tension. This means recognizing I am in a negative loop and re-directing my thoughts in a more positive direction. I start by shifting my focus from my problems and aspirations to what is already good in my life.
Make a Gratitude List
I am sure this is not the first time someone has told you to be grateful, but hear me out. Since having anxiety involves being obsessed with the idea that things have not turned out or will not turn out the way one wants, it is extremely difficult to be grateful and maintain a state of anxiety. True gratitude is thankfulness and appreciation of what one has in life to the point of pleasure and/or contentment, which is the opposite of how a person with anxiety feels. Therefore, if someone with anxiety can redirect the mind toward things they are grateful for, they can often trigger the peaceful feelings that come with gratitude.
The next time you are having anxiety, try making a list of the things in your life for which you are grateful. Include people, places, things, experiences… anything you can think of that makes your life better. Make sure you write them down! The act of writing what you are grateful for on paper is a critical part of what makes the exercise so powerful. It always relaxes me and makes me feel good inside, and it’s great for helping me put things in perspective by reminding me of all the good things in my life. I am able to see my life as a whole picture rather than being fixated on the areas that are not going the way I want.
Perform an Act of Appreciation
Another great way to curb anxiety is to do something kind for someone you appreciate. This is usually easy to do after making the gratitude list because there are typically people on your list you are grateful to have in your life. Who has been there for you in tough times, made a kind gesture that meant a lot to you, or done something to help you without even realizing it? Send them a gift with a note, invite them to lunch, write them a letter, or simply call them up to say thank you… all without expecting or accepting anything in return. Not only will you make their day, you will feel great afterwards and enhance your relationship in the process.
Volunteering to help those in need is also a powerful way to counter anxiety. Serving others who need assistance not only takes the focus off oneself, but puts you in a position of power and influence rather than feeling disempowered. Choose an activity, cause, or organization that is close to your heart and offer your services. Be sure to provide your time and talent, not a donation. It is the act of serving others that is most beneficial when it comes to anxiety because it re-establishes your sense of control over your environment. In addition, it will likely put you in contact with people less fortunate than you and reinforce your thankfulness.
Perform an Act of Self-Love
Those of us who battle anxiety often have hectic lifestyles. Some of us wear “busyness” as a badge of honor that represents how important we are. Don’t you know we are more significant because we have lots of stuff to do? You betta recognize!
However, we should be careful not to confuse busyness with success. Being busy does not mean we are being productive. Leading a productive life that will pave the way to success requires taking care of ourselves. Meeting the demands that will help us achieve our goals means our bodies, minds, and spirits must be up for the challenge. If not, we end up feeling overwhelmed, which goes hand-in-hand with anxiety.
This is why self-care is a key weapon in the battle against anxiety. Taking time to rest and recharge helps ensure we will have the mental, emotional, and physical strength to tackle all the tasks and obstacles we will face on the road to our dreams.
Make a list of all the activities and things that make you feel relaxed, energized, and cared for. Particularly include anything you have been wanting to do for yourself for a while, but never had the time. Choose two or three of them and designate half a day, or even a full day, to fully engaging in those activities. Eliminate anything that might be a distraction, even if it’s a cell phone or your loved ones. Let those important to you know you will be inaccessible for the designated time and, if you have kids, arrange for someone else to look after them. If you aren’t used to taking time completely for yourself, it will feel uncomfortable at first. However, you will adjust, and eventually you will realize it is one of the best things you can do for your peace of mind, health, and overall success.
Simplify Your Life
After you relax and recharge, you will be in a much better position to resume your journey to success. However, what type of journey will you be returning to? Have you outlined your path in a way that is simple and clear, or is it complicated and confusing? You have enormous goals to achieve, so what is your approach to making them a reality?
Slice and Dice Your Elephant
I know, I know. You’re climbing Everest… fighting Goliath… conquering the universe. But has anyone ever told you the best way to eat an elephant?
Before you begin consuming your elephant one bite at a time, you must first sharpen your Ginsu knives and slice and dice that beast into small pieces. Big dreams cannot be achieved all at once or overnight. In fact, becoming fixated on the finish line rather than running your race at your pace can trigger anxiety and cause you to make poor choices in the process. Also, staring at the enormity of your dream and wondering just how you are going to achieve it can be quite intimidating and lead you to either freeze in your tracks or retreat in defeat. Instead, break your broader objective into small steps that are simple and specific. Then, focus on completing the first step. Write step one into your schedule and, once you complete it, move on to step two, and so forth.
Taking a step-by-step approach to achieving a big dream is a lot less intimidating and builds confidence. The more steps you complete, the more momentum you will build, and eventually you will look back and see you are well down the road to achieving your dreams. You can consume your elephant, just not all at once. Take one bite… then chew, swallow, and repeat.
Share Your Elephant!
If you are experiencing anxiety, there is a good chance you are biting off more elephant than you can chew. Slicing and dicing your elephant often results in having too much meat on your plate. Newsflash: you don’t have to eat it all yourself. Share your elephant! Over committing and trying to do everything oneself is a common habit that contributes to anxiety. If we’re not careful we will end up with a to-do list that resembles an interstate road and begin to feel overwhelmed wondering how we are going to do it all.
The thing is, we really don’t have to do it all. Many of the tasks on our to-do lists can usually be delegated, outsourced, consolidated, or eliminated. Go through your list and identify which items are truly significant to your goals and must be done by you specifically. Next, take the remaining tasks and determine which ones are significant and which are insignificant. Cross off the unimportant tasks that really don’t have to be done, eliminating as many from your list as possible. Then take the tasks that are left and identify anything that can be outsourced or delegated to someone else. Are there laundry services for hire that can help you catch up on cleaning the family’s clothes? Can the kids and spouse contribute more to the household chores? Do you have any colleagues that would be willing to assist with some of the more menial tasks around the office? Can any of those tasks be automated? Is there anyone in your network who has expertise better suited for certain tasks on your lists? If so, would he or she be willing to help you in exchange for your assistance with something more in your wheelhouse?
If you look hard enough, there are usually options available to help shorten your list so you can focus on the tasks that will have the greatest impact on your goals. Be creative and open minded and you will be surprised at the number of ideas that pop into your brain to save you time and energy. You can even ask others for ideas on how to simplify certain tasks. If an option involves you paying someone, a good rule of thumb is to compare the cost per hour to your own hourly pay rate. If you can pay someone else less than your hourly pay rate to do a task that does not need your personal attention or skills, do it. The payoff of being able to spend that time on significant items in your area of expertise will be well worth it as long as outsourcing is financially feasible.
Celebrate Your Wins and Enjoy the Process!
As we are working to slay dragons and build kingdoms, it is easy to get so caught up in checking off boxes that we forget to have fun. Following the road to our dreams is supposed to bring us joy, not anxiety. If you delay your enjoyment until you actually reach your destination, you are likely to end up disappointed. Anyone who has experienced any great success will tell you that the journey is the best part. Take the time to savor and appreciate the process of creating or achieving something special. Allow yourself to be fully present during each step and phase of the journey and experience the joy of living your life with purpose. When you complete a step, pat yourself on the back and celebrate, even if it’s only a small gesture! You are making progress, and acknowledging each small victory will energize you and help propel you forward. Mark your milestones and create wonderful memories along the way so that, when you reach your goals, you remember what got you there and why you started in the first place.
When you fill your life with joy and gratitude, practice self-care, focus on what’s significant, and seek help when needed, there is a lot less room for anxiety. Stay tuned for more tips on battling anxiety in Part II of “Anxiety Sobriety: Freedom from Being Overwhelmed”!