Telling yourself to stop being anxious when you're feeling anxious is a bit like telling yourself to fall asleep when you have insomnia — it doesn't work. So what does? Here are five things to keep in mind when you're going through a dark moment.
If you're an anxious person — like myself — this scenario will sound familiar: you're at work, minding your own business, when anxiety starts to creep in.
Whether you're worrying about something specific, like an imminent deadline, or you just have a formless feeling of dread, you might be telling yourself something along these lines: "You've got to get back to work, stop worrying, stop obsessing, get your head back in the game and just focus!"
Seeing that fail, if you're prone to catastrophizing — which anxious people often are — the next thing you'll worry about is that you'll get fired. So, then, you'll worry about worrying. Soon enough, your mind will seem to have spiraled out of control, and you may even find yourself in the middle of a full-blown panic attack.
The conundrum of getting anxious over getting anxious can seem inescapable, especially when the things you're obsessing about are work-related. During such dark times, the temptation to break this vicious circle by smothering your anxiety and shouting "at" your mind to just shut up! can be huge.
But, by now, you probably know that simply doesn't work — in fact, it can make things 10 times worse. Instead, there are gentler, kinder ways to talk to yourself, settle into your person, and soothe your mind.
We take a look at some of these ways below. Before we do, however, let me just say, as a person living with anxiety, that seeing a therapist is probably the best thing you can do to cope with the condition.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) have a helpful guide that introduces people to the different kinds of therapies that are available, and an even more helpful directory, where you can search for therapists within a 5-mile radius from you.
Regardless of whether you're undergoing some form of therapy or not, however, you'll hopefully find some comfort in this article. Next time you feel like your mind is your greatest enemy, try to remember these five things — and let us know in the comments below if they've made your life any easier.
1. What you feel is real
When I had my first anxiety attack at work, I waited until I got physically ill to ask to go home. I guess, to me, it didn't feel like mental symptoms were as palpable, significant, or real as physical ones. Only physical symptoms could validate my troubles and make me feel less guilty and embarrassed about admitting that I needed some form of help.
Thinking that mental health problems are, in some way, not as real as physical ones is not uncommon. This year, millions of Internet users have asked Google if mental illness is real, and the Internet abounds with public awareness campaigns from the government and non-profit organizations answering with a resounding "Yes!"
"Anxiety disorders are real, serious medical conditions — just as real and serious as physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes," write the ADAA.
Not only that, but "Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States." In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that as many as 1 in 5 Americans are affected by anxiety disorders.
When I had my anxiety attack, my main worry was that my employer would think I was trying to skive my duties. If you feel the same, the good news is you're not alone. In fact, a recent survey on workplace stress and anxiety reports that 38 percent of those with an anxiety disorder do not tell their employers because they fear that "their boss would interpret it as lack of interest of unwillingness to do the activity."
When you're at work, a place where you're expected to perform and be at your best, it can be difficult to admit to vulnerabilities and cut yourself some slack. But try to remember your anxiety is real, just as real as the most painful migraine or a really bad stomach ache — and you deserve to take care of yourself, just as you would if you had those physical conditions.
2. Your employer won't fire you
A major part of having an anxiety attack in the workplace can be the fear that you'll get fired. The good news is — you probably won't.
The fear of getting sacked is often part of the catastrophizing mechanism that is a hallmark of workplace anxiety. But should your worst "what if" scenario come true, the law is on your side.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is designed to protect employees like you from job discrimination; so, if you tell your employer that you have a lasting "physical or mental impairment," they are required, by law, to not only keep you on, but also provide you with "reasonable accommodation."
As the ADAA explain, your employer cannot fire you, or refuse to hire you, if you're qualified for the job and your disability stops you from performing tasks that are "not essential" to the job.
For a more detailed explanation of what that means, as well as what counts as "reasonable accommodation," check out this useful page with information put together by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
3. Work with anxiety, not against it
Steven Hayes, professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Nevada in Reno, a prominent figure in the field of mental health — and, more importantly, a man who is no stranger to panic attacks himself — advocates for a more self-compassionate and self-accepting way of dealing with anxiety.
In fact, Prof. Hayes is the founder of one of the newest and most innovative forms of cognitive behavioral therapy, called acceptance commitment therapy (ACT). This form of therapy starts with the acceptance and neutral, non-judgemental observation of negative thoughts, and moves toward bringing the client into the present moment and helping them lead a meaningful life.
In this video, he explains why seeing anxiety as your enemy is not helpful. If you see your feelings of anxiety as your enemy, he says, then you see your personal history as your enemy; if your physical sensations are your enemy, "then your body is your enemy" — and fighting your anxiety means fighting yourself.
This self-denial and self-avoidance are what ultimately leads to psychopathologies, Prof. Hayes notes. Instead, he suggests, try to hold your fear in a self-compassionate way. "Bring that frightened part of you close and treat it with some dignity."
It's perhaps worth mentioning that ACT has proven effective in the treatment of anxiety in a wide range of studies, and in some areas of mental health, it proved to be even more effective than the classical form of CBT.
4. Make stress your friend
Along similar lines, health psychologist and world-renowned speaker Kelly McGonigal makes the case for a positive rethinking of stress. In this talk, she explains, it's not so much the stress itself that is harmful, as the way in which we think about it.
Instead of seeing stress as your enemy, you can make it work for you. Stress and anxiety are nothing but a sign that you care about something, and this care can be molded into something that wildly improves your performance instead of inhibiting it.
But isn't this just wishy-washy, "think positive," smile-at-yourself-in-the-mirror-and-your-depression-will-go-away kind of pseudo-science?
Not really. McGonigal grounds her beliefs in pretty solid scientific evidence, ranging from observational studies to randomized trials, and her book "The Upside of Stress," is studded with references to numerous studies which showed actual results.
One such study tested out a simple three-step process for dealing with stress and anxiety in the workplace, and yielded positive results. Here it is, as laid out by McGonigal:
"The first step is to acknowledge stress when you experience it. Simply allow yourself to notice the stress, including how it affects your body."
"The second step is to welcome the stress by recognizing that it's a response to something you care about. Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? What is at stake here, and why does it matter to you?"
"The third step is to make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress. What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values?"
Personally, I probably wouldn't be so convinced if I hadn't realized, while reading this, that I've already tried out these suggestions. I've done so intuitively, on a few occasions, and was very pleased with the outcome.
For instance, working in a fast-paced environment as part of a news team sometimes allows me to redirect my anxiety and channel it into writing high-quality news stories, which I deliver against the clock. When I used to work as a teacher, I'd channel my anxiety about speaking in public into creating upbeat, high-energy, engaging classes.
But don't take my word for it — read the book, try it out, and see what you think.
5. 'Find what feels good'
In her "Yoga with Adriene" sessions — which are available online, for free — Adriene often says "Find what feels good," and while most of the time she's referring to physical yoga poses, I think this piece of advice suits us, "worriers," beautifully when we're trying to figure out ways to cope with the harshness of our inner voice.
Often, those of us who live with anxiety are also perfectionists, over-achievers, and generally people who (have been taught to) expect a lot from themselves. When you have anxiety, that makes things even worse, because not being at your best makes you angry at yourself, and treating yourself harshly is the last thing you need when you're, in fact, at your most vulnerable.
But it's worth remembering that no one is ever perfect, and we all need to take care of and nurture our flawed selves.
"Find what feels good" is a great adage because it replaces that harsh inner voice with a kinder, gentler one — a lot like the tone Adriene uses in her own videos — but also, just as importantly, it's a good reminder that different strategies work for different people, and only you can find what works best for you.
That said, I will leave you with something that works for me: a self-loving video from Adriene, tailored specifically for anxiety.