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Make a Plan for Anxiety

September 1, 2019 George Abitante

This week, I was thinking about how you need a plan for anxiety. Anxiety can pop up without rhyme or reason, stay for an indeterminable amount of time, and sometimes can vanish so quickly that we don't realize the change right away. When anxiety arises quickly, it can be difficult to maintain the awareness that we are not anxiety, and this can make it more difficult to cope. Part of this difficulty occurs because anxiety affects more than our emotional state -- it affects our cognitive state. But a plan for anxiety can help with all this. 

How Do You Plan for Anxiety?

I've found that the best strategy is to make a plan for anxiety before you feel anxious. It may sound strange, but this is actually how we handle most obstacles in our lives. When you're trying to lose weight, for example, you make a plan that identifies obstacles you may face while losing weight and actions you can take to overcome them. If, for instance, you love chocolate ice cream and always eat a pint at a time, you might identify a satisfying substitute, perhaps dark chocolate, that doesn't result in overeating.

In the same way that we plan for concrete, identifiable goals, we should also plan for our anxiety. Just as a pint of chocolate ice cream can distract us from losing weight, so too does anxiety distract us from living joyous and meaningful lives. Without a plan, the anxiety train can take us to an entirely different destination than we want, and it can be difficult to derail it. Use the next 10 minutes of free time you have to identify common obstacles you face when you feel anxious and to find just one activity or action that helps you feel better. Below, I describe the advantages of creating a plan for anxiety and how a plan can help you cope more effectively. 

3 Ways a Plan for Anxiety Can Help You

  1. It reduces cognitive load. The most important part of having a plan for anxiety is that it requires less work than creating a plan in the moment. When we're anxious, our minds are distracted and burdened by anxious thoughts. Think about it -- how well would you be able to think about coping tools if you had to count to 1000 simultaneously? It'd be really difficult, and this is similar to the toll anxiety imposes on our thinking. Having a plan already prepared means we don't have to do such cognitive heavy lifting and makes it easier to use coping skills. 
  2. In reduces rumination. One way anxiety can stick around is by inducing ruminative thinking. Rumination occurs when we get stuck in a loop of thoughts about one or two things that feel scary to us. Often, rumination prevents us from moving on from our anxiety and keeps us stuck longer than we need to be. By having a plan, however, we can anticipate ruminative thinking and have strategies in place for dealing with them. I can create a plan to do a pushup every time I notice myself ruminating, for example, which not only breaks up my thoughts but also gets me to do something positive for my health. 
  3. It reduces anxious time. The natural effect of reducing cognitive load and rumination is that we spend less time anxious overall. A plan provides a support structure we can rely on while anxious, and having something else to focus on right away can hold us back from getting sucked into anxious thinking. Using the plan as a focal point of our attention not only helps us use coping tools quickly, it also helps us maintain awareness of the distinction between ourselves and our anxiety. When that awareness is maintained, it allows us to stay disengaged from anxiety and move past it quickly; whereas when we feel like we are entirely anxious, it often sticks around much longer.

Whatever plan you create, it is important to practice using it often. It may take several minutes to remember your plan when you feel very anxious, but over time this will get easier and you will be able to use it more quickly. Creating a plan for anxiety allows us to face anxiety with confidence, and ultimately allows us to live healthier, more joyful lives in the process. 

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, September 1). Make a Plan for Anxiety , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 17 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/9/make-a-plan-for-anxiety



Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is focused on improving the efficacy and accessibility of treatments for depression and anxiety. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

Lizanne Corbit
says:
September, 1 2019 at 8:16 pm
I love your suggestion for meeting anxiety with a plan! Not only can this preemptively minimize or eliminate some anxiety because we feel prepared and empowered, but it can also help us not to stay in the cycle of it as long. I think your suggestion for doing a push-up every time you catch yourself starting to ruminate is such a great way to combine a physical action.
September, 1 2019 at 9:14 pm
Hi Lizanne,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Your point about using a plan to make us feel empowered is excellent -- being prepared doesn't just change how we behave, it also changes how we feel.

George

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