Although it is a normal human emotion and an adaptive response to threatening situations, anxiety can feel overwhelming, often trapping us in a loop of automatic thoughts that lead to physiological responses that convince us something is wrong.
The result is a host of behaviors that help us avoid anything that triggers our anxiety, but which, over time, only causes it to increase.
Moreover, should we reach for something to help us calm down — such as alcohol, a cigarette, or marijuana — it can make our anxiety even worse.
Overcoming anxiety, says Renee Mill, takes more than a little practice. In her new book, The Anxiety Management Workbook: A 10-Session Program to Help You Beat Anxiety, Mill lays out the specific exercises that help identify, contain, and manage anxiety, and in the process, teach your brain to function better.
The first step is to monitor ourselves, writing down when we exercise, relax, have negative thoughts, or felt anxious.
When you do this, “You will learn how to identify what’s going on with you at any given time (in terms of beliefs/thoughts/feelings and behaviors/responses),” writes Mill.
One tip Mill gives is to put things perspective and avoid using catastrophic language to describe everyday troubles. She writes, “When you use catastrophic terms to describe everyday hassles, your brain believes there is danger and sets off a fight/flight reaction.”
Perspective also helps us separate fears from facts and understand that events like a bad haircut are unfair and annoying, but not life threatening. Stepping back and reviewing the situation can also help us make a more holistic evaluation and avoid pervasive pessimistic thinking.
Mill writes, “When you have an issue in your life it will be beneficial for you to stand back and look at your life as a whole.”
While a pessimistic outlook is demotivating and de-energizing, holding a total view about ourselves and our world that is positive helps us persevere when we do have problems.
Often, this is the difference between seeing problems as permanent or temporary.
Mill writes, “When you believe something is negative and not going to change and will stay that way forever, you will feel demotivated and maybe even depressed.”
One exercise Mill suggests is to write down three occasions in life where we thought things would never get better, but they did.
Sometimes, however, it is helpful to recognize when our efforts are not well-placed. “Perseverance frequently leads to success. However, when hammering away does not bring you your desired results, it is best to surrender control and to let go,” writes Mill.
A few ways Mill suggests to let go of control are handing our problem over to a higher power, utilizing visualization, writing down what is bothering us, practicing mindfulness, and incorporating meditation and relaxation.
By observing our experiences without being analytical, describing the details of what we are observing without subjective evaluations, participating fully in our experiences, being non-judgmental, and focusing on one thing at a time, we can learn to stop trying to control our experiences, which only exacerbates feelings of anxiety.
Normalizing our feelings and understanding they are not exceptions to the human experience can also help us feel less alone.
Mill writes, “When you believe that you are an exception, it will result in you feeling different misunderstood, alone, helpless or abnormal. Conversely, when you know that what you are going through is a common problem, you no longer feel different or alone.”
It is also important to stop comparing ourselves to others. Instead, Mill suggests that we identify where we fall on the bell curve and work on accepting our unique place, purpose, and destiny.
Another helpful step is to learn to compartmentalize our emotions and not let them cloud our whole day. Sometimes this means focusing on something other than emotions. Mill writes, “Distraction is not about trying to avoid reality. You are simply making a choice to intentionally focus on something else. You are fully in the moment and being productive, but with an activity that is affirming rather than negating.”
Exercise, gardening, spending time in nature, socializing with friends, getting enough sleep, and laughter are all activities that help us put our lives in perspective and prioritize what is really important in our lives.
And while facing our fears will help them subside, Mills suggests a graded approach where we start with smaller fears and work our way toward larger ones. One helpful tool she gives is called the exposure ladder, where we create a series of steps, gradually increasing our exposure to our fears until we are able to face them head on.
Overcoming anxiety takes practice, but it also takes the right kind of practice. The Anxiety Management Workbook is a step-by-step approach full of effective and easy-to-use tools to help anyone better manage their anxiety and live a more fulfilling life.
Anxiety Management Workbook: A 10-Session Program to Help You Beat Anxiety
Australian Academic Press, December 2017
Paperback, 258 pages