Treating Anxiety

Exposure therapy can reduce the severity of phobias and anxiety. Learn more about exposure therapy and what you can do to implement it to reduce your anxiety.
I thought about cultivating self-kindness after I wrote an article about reducing negative self-talk. I realized that although those strategies were effective for limiting negative self-talk, they didn't address a more fundamental issue. For many people, it is a lot harder to show kindness to ourselves than to other people. I think part of this occurs because we have access to every thought and emotion in our lives, and since we know that our experiences are not always wholly positive, we feel that this makes us less deserving of love and compassion. This mode of thought is reinforced frequently in society and seems to be built off the general idea that we begin our lives blameless but can lose our innocence over time. Although it is easier to classify ourselves and others using binary categories like "good" and "bad," these classifications are ultimately not accurate representations of ourselves or others.
Comparisons cause anxiety. For much of human history, being sensitive to the people in your surroundings was crucial for survival. If someone looked afraid, it often meant that a predator was near and that you needed to start running immediately. Today, those mechanisms are largely intact, but the types of threats we face are often from other people in social contexts. Although we don't use other people to check for physical threats as often, we now compare ourselves to others to check on whether we're safe and our lives are going well.
Is it possible to visualize anxiety away? This past week, I was watching an interview with an extraordinary rock climber named Alex Honnold. He has been climbing rock faces without a safety rope for years; and despite the terrifying nature of his exploits, he somehow maintains a state of calm even when thousands of feet above the ground. How does he do this? One strategy he uses is visualization. He visualizes anxiety away. Before each climb, Alex practices not only by climbing the rock face with ropes but also by imagining every step in climbing his route. He imagines what he'd do if certain things went wrong over and over again so that by the time he actually begins his climb, nothing can really phase him. By processing the challenges he'd face beforehand, Alex not only prepared himself for the physical challenge of his climbs, but also for the mental challenges. 
Last Monday, I realized I needed to change my self-talk too late. I was working on a project that had taken a lot of time and effort. It was a challenge to keep working at it, and as the day progressed, I became increasingly frustrated -- not with the work itself, but with myself. My inner dialogue became more and more negative, producing many thoughts that were discouraging and not helpful. The more I experienced these thoughts, the less focused I was on my work, and this made it really difficult to finish my project quickly. The stress of completing this project ultimately made me feel angry and annoyed with myself despite the fact that the challenges I faced were not my fault, but instead were the natural consequence of taking on a complicated project. What I didn't realize until afterward, however, was just how much I could have changed my self-talk to improve my mental state and productivity. 
Anxiety can take all of your attention, but you can take it back. You see, I had a really interesting learning experience this week. I was working to finish a manuscript, and I devoted a lot of time to this task over the course of the week. Initially, I felt very productive and like I was making a lot of progress. But as I came closer to completing the manuscript, I found myself feeling less focused on what I needed to be doing. The fewer steps between me and finishing writing, the less I thought about what I could work on next and the more I thought about what I didn't like about it. Perhaps unintuitively, as I thought more about what I didn't like about my writing, the less productive I became.
Maintaining healthy relationships when you're under stress is difficult. For example, this past week, I had a really tough time at work. I was feeling sick, working on a lot of projects, and struggling just to keep my head above water. As the week went on, I became progressively more focused on myself, trying to figure out how to get through all of my work and stop feeling so stressed out by it. Unfortunately, this meant that I was devoting most of my attention to myself and wasn't supporting my girlfriend as I normally would. By the end of the week, I was struggling to figure out what I could do differently to be supportive despite the stress I was experiencing at work.
Think small improvements to reduce anxiety -- what does that mean? I'll explain. This past week, I was walking to work and had to stop for what felt like an inordinately long light. Eventually, it changed and I realized that the whole time I was waiting, I could have crossed the adjacent street. Now, this other street is much smaller than the one I was trying to cross, but even so, it would have brought me closer to my destination than just standing there waiting. Oddly enough, this experience made me think about anxiety and the costs of waiting for a major change instead of looking for other, small opportunities to improve.
Is anxiety ever an opportunity rather than an obstacle? If you’re experiencing anxiety frequently, it is tempting to think of it solely as a negative, frightening experience. However, anxiety at its most basic level is a protective response that can help you adapt to threats in your environment. The next time you feel anxious, try developing a positive mindset about your anxiety by using it as an opportunity to improve.
Every year, I take time to reflect on my experiences and identify goals I want to pursue. Inevitably, some of these new year's goals fall by the wayside, regardless of how passionate I was about them at the start of the year. For a long time, I couldn't figure out why I stuck with some of my goals but not others. Eventually, I realized it was for a simple reason: some of my new year's goals set me up for failure.