It's important to know how to reduce anxiety fast because sometimes it feels like your anxiety builds up too quickly to do anything about it. Like you were feeling ok one minute and then suddenly felt extremely anxious? This is a common experience, and it often starts with something going just a little bit different than we might like.
The importance of being anxious? Alright, I get what you're thinking -- George made a mistake in his title. Who really thinks it's important to have anxiety, right? Well, to my surprise (and likely yours too), I've realized that anxiety is the best teacher, and knowing how to learn without anxiety is actually one of the most important skills you can develop if "being anxious" is what you do.
Understanding your anxiety and yourself can be really challenging. Last week I wrote about techniques to avoid labeling yourself as anxious, and as a strange continuation, today I want to share the value I see in using labels to overcome anxiety by understanding your anxiety's source. Here's a question you may not have considered: how do you know whether a thought is a product of you, or of your anxiety? Now, the easy answer is that it's both -- our minds defy simple categorization, and our thoughts are the same. But I think distinguishing between behaviors and thoughts that result from anxiety and from our preferences is a crucial strategy for understanding your anxiety so you can move past it. Let's walk through an example to illustrate why.
Does anxiety define you? Do experiences determine who we are? These are questions that have been bugging me for the past week as I've talked to friends who experience anxiety and read about others who do as well. For many, reaching out to a therapist or even just feeling anxiety frequently leads them to define themselves by anxiety. Anxiety shifts from an experience they have to a label that globally identifies them as "disordered" or "messed up," and these negative labels, in turn, can exacerbate 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.