People with anxiety disorders often face a sense of worry or dread and spend hours ruminating over worst case scenarios, which can get in the way of professional goals, personal relationships and a good quality of life. But there are ways to cope.
Here, experts offer their best techniques to work through situations that might drum up anxiety, which may help you or someone you know keep worry or fear at bay:
1. Put your worrisome thoughts on a schedule.
If you are going about your day and notice anxious thoughts, identify the thought stream and then postpone thinking about it until later, Ricks Warren, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, told The Huffington Post. Warren calls this technique “worry postponement” or a “worry scheduling” skill, which can be very effective.
For example, you might be at a movie and find yourself becoming anxious about an upcoming work presentation. To postpone and schedule, pause and metaphorically put that whole worry on a shelf. Say to yourself, “I’m not at work right now. I will think about this tomorrow at the office.”
Later on, when it is time to consider what was making you feel anxious, you might consider discussing the issue with someone you trust.
2. Develop a “catastrophe scale.”
Draw a line on a piece of paper. Write the number zero at the beginning of the line, 50 in the middle and 100 at the end. This is what Warren calls a “catastrophe scale.” Then ask yourself, “What are the worst possible things that could happen?” Write those things down on the side with the highest values.
“When you think about a child dying, or a terrible accident, it helps people put things in perspective,” Warren said. “Not everything gets a 100.”
Being late for a job interview or a blunder at a party are unfortunate events. But, as Warren hopes you’ll come to believe, they’re not scenarios you should be terribly hard on yourself about in the scheme of things.
The goal for the rating system is that you eventually break down what you’d need to do in order to cope with it. This could be rallying a supportive group of friends, making a phone call or simply working out to reduce your stress and let it go.
3. Break big projects into small tasks.
Worry and anxiety can find their way into the workplace, showing up in the form of procrastination, says Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.
“[People with anxiety] often want to show up on time, wanting to complete the work. Anxiety is what paralyzes them,” Humphreys told HuffPost.
Humphreys suggests breaking down overwhelming projects into the smallest possible task.
Small goals are effective for those dealing with social anxiety as well. If going to a party feels overwhelming, don’t worry about becoming the life of the party. Just set one small goal such as greeting the host, or talking to one person you do not know.
4. Prove your anxiety wrong.
Research from the University of California, Los Angeles’ Anxiety and Depression Research Center found that when people with anxiety expose themselves to their anxiety trigger, it actually helps them cope better. By showing yourself that the worst didn’t happen, you’ll minimize the fear you experience.
For example, say you are afraid of riding the subway and your worst fear is that you’ll get stuck for ages without help. Head underground with your worst fears in tow. After you ride the subway, without getting stuck, you successfully disprove your worst hypothesis. This can be an empowering exercise, Warren says.
5. Force your body into a state of calm.
Your body already has a built-in stress reliever, it’s just a matter of tapping into it.
“Focus on your breathing, put your feet flat on the floor. Smile even if you don’t feel like smiling,” Humphreys advised. “Tense your muscles then let them go, then tense them again and repeat. Relax your body and a lot of people will find your emotions will follow.”
6. Cultivate acceptance about your anxiety.
According to Warren, there’s a big difference between accepting your anxiety and accepting yourself as someone who experiences anxiety.
“People put themselves down for being anxious,” he explained. “Accept yourself with anxiety and notice that you’re not alone.”
And it’s true: An anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in the country, with nearly 40 million American adults experiencing it over their lifetime. It’s critical to cultivate self compassion about your condition.
“Support yourself with anxiety, just as if a friend was there supporting you,” Warren said.
7. Remember that anxiety disorders are highly treatable.
“If it’s serious and you’re paralyzed with anxiety everyday, there are mental health treatments that really work,” Humphreys said.
And if you are not experiencing this condition, but know someone who is, try to be as empathetic as possible to what he or she is going through. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 25 percent of people with a mental health disorder feel like others are understanding about their experience.
Above all, it’s important to remember that you deserve to feel calm and healthy. Despite what your anxious thoughts might lead you to believe, the stakes are a lot lower than you think.
“We would worry a lot less what other people thought of us if we knew how rarely they did,” Humphreys said.