The experience of anxiety is part of being human. Feeling tense in nerve-racking situations – like sitting an exam, completing a job interview or going on a first date – is completely normal, and everyone experiences these flutters of worry from time to time. So how do you stop anxiety from holding you back?
The problem comes when these worries start to negatively influence your choices, and become a huge part of the way you think about life. Normal worry is something that people can experience but then get over, for example by going into an exam feeling a little nervous but still performing well, or even a little better as their nerves provide a rush of adrenaline that gives them an edge.
Those who suffer with anxiety experience this kind of emotion very differently. Here, the fear becomes so strong that it dominates everything else, affecting your performance and how you interact with the world. It also becomes irrational, where instead of reacting to an event that would induce anxiety in most people, it becomes something that you feel all the time, even when there’s no obvious outside source.
If you feel this way, you certainly aren’t alone. Forty million American’s suffer with anxiety, and women are especially affected, being diagnosed with this mental health issue at twice the rate of men. When living with anxiety you may find yourself battling with the idea that your life and career is being held back, as fear and worry makes you avoid social situations and curtail your ambitions.
If you want to reduce the impact anxiety has on your day-to-day life, here’s some ways you can stop anxiety from holding you back.
Take up Meditation
There’s lots of great reasons to take up meditation, but if you live with overwhelming or damaging anxiety it can be especially helpful. The physical source of anxiety is in the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with our “fight or flight” response. This survival response evolved in us over millennia to protect us from harm, increasing our heart rate, filling our bodies with stress hormones and preparing us to either run or fight for our lives.
This is vital in survival situations, but in anxiety sufferers this fight or flight response is triggered constantly and through worries about what could happen, rather than what is actually happening. The result is constant and self-perpetuating vigilance and fear, an overload of stress hormones, and physical reactions like sweating, stomach problems and panic attacks.
Meditation deals with anxiety at the source. It has been shown in brain scans to physically reduce the amygdala after just eight weeks, creating a space in your life for relaxation and a break from your own nagging thoughts. It can help you stop a panic attack before it even starts and significantly reduces the amount of stress hormones in your system, and all in all gives you a great base from which to start tackling your anxiety.
Give Yourself a Break
If you are trying to put yourself out there at little more by meeting new people, finally going for that promotion or trying to get your work seen by a wider audience, make sure you are kind to yourself. Instead of beating yourself up if you find yourself blushing or shaking, tell yourself that this is a natural reaction to nerves, and if your physical symptoms become unbearable, don’t be afraid to remove yourself from the situation.
It’s also helpful to remember that no matter how to feel on the inside, its very unlikely that this will be obvious to others, and that even if it is people are much kinder and understanding than we expect. A big part of anxiety is catastrophizing. Believing that everything has gone terribly, you’ve badly let yourself down and everyone thinks less of you can be the outcome of even a successful interaction where you have done rather well, and other people have absolutely no idea that you feel this way.
By recognizing this and attempting the reduce harmful self-blame you can replace the narrative that tells you that your fears and worries are part of a personal failing, and start instead to address the anxiety itself.
Ask Some Questions
There’s some questions you can ask yourself when you need to put your worries in perspective, especially when you are trying to move your life forward or try something new. Firstly, what’s the worst that can happen? Anxiety often conjures up the absolute worst possible outcome, but how bad is it really? If the worst thing that can happen out of an exam is that you’ll fail it, you’ll still be alive, you’ll still have your friends, life will go on.
Secondly, how likely is it that this thing is going to happen? Anxiety makes us wildly overestimate the likelihood of a disastrous event, as well as the consequences of that event if it were actually to happen.
For example, if you are very anxious about driving, you’ll believe that driving will almost certainly lead to a crash, and this crash won’t be an annoying but ultimately harmless bump (like the vast majority or car accidents), but the much rarer event of major injury or fatality.
Rationalizing these thoughts is easier said than done, but reinforcing the fact that your actions are very, very unlikely to end badly – and especially unlikely to end as badly as you think they will – is important when you don’t want anxiety to run your life.
Setting too high standards for yourself will result in the kind of pressure that makes life much less enjoyable and anxiety much more pronounced. Black and white thinking can mean than anything less than what you perceive as a faultless performance is a failure, making what would otherwise be a positive experience an anxiety-inducing one.
For example, if you’ve had a rare argument with your partner in an otherwise good relationship, this can be seen as evidence of your inability to keep things perfect all of the time, rather than a healthy expression which may well improve communication and in the long run, strengthen your relationship. Or if a piece of work didn’t get the highest possible mark, anxious feelings of failure eclipse what should be feelings of pride in what you’ve achieved.
This extends to seeking help. If you are brave enough to talk to someone about your anxieties and actively change your life, this is something you should applaud in yourself, not take as an admission of an inability to cope.
Face your Fears
Feeling the fear but doing it anyway is how, in the end, you can break through the wall of anxiety that is stopping you from living life how you want to. Embracing your fears and allowing yourself to experience them will eventually take their power away.
Once you’ve gone out there and done the things you’re nervous about doing, you’ll see that your worst fears don’t materialize. Furthermore, once you start seeing the positive changes, your motivation and happiness will increase. Eventually, your anxiety will lessen, and will no longer dictate your decisions.