It is 7:45 am and the conference room is slowly filling up with upper management. Your presentation is scheduled to start at 8:00 am and you are stuck in the biggest traffic jam of your life. You can feel your heart pounding, palms sweating, and it is taking every ounce of your concentration to slowly take your foot off the accelerator, allowing the car to slowly inch forward. Feeling anxious? Who wouldn’t? This is a great example of an anxiety-provoking situation. How often does this scenario actually happen? Rarely. How often do we imagine these types of situations? All the time.
Anxiety is a negative mood state characterized by physical tension and apprehension about an event or situation (APA, 2010). It is considered a future-orientated mood state. Anxiety rarely happens in the moment. An anxious state is created by excessive worry and frustration which leads to an inability to think or do anything else. Our mind simply becomes fixated about that particular event or situation. A little anxiety actually enhances our performance. It is when it becomes all-consuming it manifests into an Anxiety Disorder and can spiral into depression. Depression can create other concerns that impacts family, friends, and co-workers.
When we are in anxiety mode we catastrophizes the situation. We go from 0 to 1000 in a matter of minutes. Our thoughts move quickly from there is a traffic jam and I might be a little late to my company is going to fire me, then my significant other will divorce me, and I will end up living on the street. Catastrophizing the situation is a cognitive or thinking error (Beck, 2011). That may sound bad that there is a name for our behavior but it is actually a good thing, because we can create strategies to minimize and replace these thoughts with healthy productive behaviors. Notice I did not say alleviate because stress and anxiety is part of our everyday lives. We encounter anxiety or stress when we are driving, standing in line, watching a sporting event or movie, or having a discussion with family or friends. Learning to cope with anxious or stressful situations helps us build inner strength, resiliency, and problem solving abilities. These skills ultimately guard us against harmful thoughts and feelings that can destroy important relationships in our life.
There are many different strategies or ways to cope when beginning to feel overwhelmed or frustrated. Below is my top six strategies:
1. Physical Exercise: Naturally, we all know physical exercise is the best way to relieve tension. Even a short ten minute walk helps relieve anxious feelings. It clears our mind, works off frustration, and allows us to rationally decide the best course of action.
2. Healthy Diet: Eating a balance diet keeps energy levels up and feeds our brain. Studies have shown that eating foods rich in Vitamin B, such as beef, pork, legumes, rice, and citrus fruit can ward off anxiety (Everyday Health Media, 2017). A balanced body aids in higher brain functions, such as cognitive processing and procedural memory.
3. Power of No: One strategy that most of us have a hard time with is avoiding extra pressure or what I call the power of no. When someone, significant other, boss, or family member asks us to take on additional work, we have the right to say NO. So why don’t we? Fear! Fear I am going to get fired, fear my significant other or kids won’t like me. Fear of missing out on a terrific opportunity. How do we say no without the backlash? By setting boundaries through the use of I statements. I can’t do that today but I can do it next week. I have a full workload right now. Remember once you say no, you do not need to justify.
4. Self-Limiting Thoughts: Every day we tell ourselves lies. We become our own worst critic. We tell ourselves thinks like: “I could never be a…” “I’ll never speak as well as…” “I’m not thin enough, tall enough, or pretty enough to ….” These thoughts stem from false beliefs based on past experience (Beck, 2011). It creates an emotional conflict that leads to negative self-talk and to a negative self-image. It actually increases our stress and puts more pressure on us. The best solution is to replace negative thoughts with calming words. We have the power to replace false beliefs with new positive experiences. Keep in mind it is normal to have some false beliefs. Also know that 99% of the time we can turn self-limiting thoughts into positive actions by replacing lies and faulty thinking with new positive thoughts. We do this by following a simple process. First we acknowledge and validate the thought. Next we restate that thought positively. One positive thought generally leads to another and soon we have a chain of true positive statements about self, event, or situation.
5. Mindfulness Techniques: Mindfulness techniques focus on breathing and awareness. This helps calm racing thoughts, quiets the mind, and allows you to relax. When we are relaxed we are in a good place to make sound decisions based on logic and reason instead of emotions. It is all about breathing, observing, listening, and escaping the pressures building inside of us. Using a code word that triggers happy thoughts, like a special place or event also reduces anxiety and stress.
6. Guided Imagery: Guided imagery is a powerful technique. It focuses and directs our imagination. It utilizes mental imagery to create a relaxed state and helps us regulate our emotions. It calms pounding heartbeats and channels negativity into a place of peace. It slows down our breathing and helps unclench muscles. Think about when you are really tense, where do you feel it? Neck, shoulder, stomach. All those muscles relax as we focus on a calming place. Best of all, it evokes all five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. In the moment of heighten stress we can feel like we are walking on a moonlight beach.
Remember we can only control what is in our control. I can’t control the traffic jam, but I can control how I react about the situation. Use these tools the next time you are feeling anxious and the situations won’t become catastrophic.
I am going to talk about 6 strategies. These first two are no brainers. We all know physical exercise and eating healthy is the best way to cope with stress and anxiety. Avoid extra pressure or what I call The power of no. When someone, even your boss, asks you to take on additional work, you have the to say NO. So why don’t we? Fear! Fear I am going to get fired, fear my significant other or kids won’t like me, Fear of missing out on a terrific opportunity. How do we say no without the backlash? By setting boundaries through the use of I statements. I can’t do that today but I can do it next week. I have a full workload right now. I can do that project if Blah Blah is removed from my workload. Remember once you say no, you do not need to justify. The last three strategies we are going to look at more in-depth.
Many of my clients find the breathing, mindfulness, and guided imagery exercise taught in session helpful. It allows them to quiet non-productive thoughts and focus on what is in their control. It empowers them to review, think, and act. You don’t have to live with anxiety, stress, or panic.