Philosophy and theory are nice.
But when it comes to managing anxiety, skills and tools are better.
Any effective strategy for managing anxiety includes at least three components: acceptance, mental focus, and physiology.
There are various skills and tools we can use to address each component— but each component needs to be addressed if we’re going to make a dent in our anxiety.
An anxiety management strategy that DOESN’T address one of those components will be incomplete. It might work for a minute— but it won’t ultimately be as effective as we need it to be.
Acceptance means acknowledging the problem of anxiety— and the specific level and kind of anxiety we’re experiencing at the moment.
We can’t manage what we don’t accept is happening. We really can’t.
A lot of people think they’re going to skip this component. They find anxiety so unpleasant and overwhelming that they resist acknowledging that it’s exactly as bad as it is.
(We’ve all known someone who is clearly melting down and overwhelmingly anxious— but who stubbornly insists they are “JUST FINE.”)
Denial is not an anxiety management strategy. It’s a very effective anxiety exacerbation strategy, though.
Once we’ve accepted that we’re anxious, and it’s exactly as bad as it is, then we can get on to effectively managing it.
Mental focus involves becoming aware of the story in our heads that is fueling the anxiety.
We don’t develop anxiety in a vacuum. Anxiety arises in response to our thoughts— usually our thoughts about things that are outside of our control.
What often happens is, an external event will trigger a well-rehearsed “story” that we often tell ourselves— and we tumble down the anxiety rabbit hole as a result.
In order to effectively manage our anxiety, we need to shift our mental focus, somehow, some way.
There are lots of tools and skills we can use to shift our mental focus— containment, distraction, music, self-talk, internal communication, poetry, quotes, visualization. The list goes on and on.
The important thing is that we get something new and different in front of our mind’s eye than the mental “story” that triggered our anxiety.
We cannot manage our anxiety without shifting our mental focus.
Physiology is the state of our physical body. Our posture, breathing, muscle tension, heart rate— anything going on that involves your body (as opposed what’s happening in your mind).
It’s hard to mange your anxiety if you’re holding on to anxious physiology.
It’s not at all easy to relax your muscles, slow your breathing, or straighten your posture while you’re in a state of anxiety— but if you really want to change that anxiety, you’re going to have to address that physiology.
With practice those three components— acceptance, mental focus, and physiology— can all be addressed in a short period of time.
At first, the temptation is to get “stuck” on one of the components— but, over time, we can get into the habit of going through our mental checklist and making quick adjustments to each component.
There are anxiety management strategies that focus on each of those components. Cognitive therapy, for example, addresses mental focus. Progressive relaxation and medication address physiology. The mindfulness tools of Dialectical Behavior Therapy addresses acceptance.
Any long-term strategy for handling anxiety, however, NEEDS to address all three components.
Anxiety management can be learned. It can be practiced, and you WILL get better at it.
That said: anxiety is no fun, and managing it isn’t easy under the best of circumstances.
Be patient with yourself. Give yourself time to experiment with the strategies that work for you.
And don’t give up.
You’ve come too far.
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