These are usually the first two words that people with anxiety think when they are worrying. What follows are chains of intrusive, catastrophic thoughts that can be so distressing and distracting that they interfere with daily living. Racing ahead and making negative or threat-oriented predictions about the future comes from our ancient survival system doing what it thinks it needs to do to protect us. With an anxiety disorder, that system goes into overdrive. The solution becomes the problem. Because when we’re in worry mode, more things seem scary and unmanageable.
Learning to identify when you’re in worry mode is a crucial pivot that will help you manage anxiety. There are always steps we can take to see situations more accurately and act out of intention rather than fear, but that will only happen if we respond differently to that “what if.”
Expecting and accepting that your anxiety will always get there first will actually help you feel less anxious. It’s not personal, it’s just how we were “built to last.” Instead of “what if” leading to feeling more scared, we can take charge of that anxious reaction and take charge of our lives. I often suggest these four strategies for managing anxious thoughts and the feelings that come with them:
- Make worry wait. Put up a stop sign when you feel anxious thoughts intruding, and instead make an appointment to deal with them at a particular time. Don’t worry on demand. Make an appointment with yourself to spend five minutes writing your worries down, fact-checking them for accuracy, and figuring out whether there is anything you can or need to do about them right now.
- Relabel what’s happening. Tell yourself, “okay, that’s my worry, not necessarily the truth.” Slow things down, stop at the first “what if,” get specific, narrow down the fear, fact-check, and see if there really is a problem you need to solve. Very often, your worry about a problem is worse than the problem itself.
- Consult other perspectives. Get input and direction from people you trust — real or fictional — without them even knowing. Ask yourself what your trusted internal board of directors would do in your situation. You’ll channel your own wisdom, but this exercise allows you to get out of the fight-or-flight response and get to higher-level thinking. Write the names of four people you respect on a sticky note or on your phone, and “call” your panel when worry stops you.
- Borrow easy energy to mobilize. Sometimes, just keeping going and making daily decisions can feel overwhelming. You may need to ask others for help. Small things like asking for input on what to cook for dinner, or having a friend share a favorite song can help your momentum.
When do you need to seek help? If anxious thoughts are interfering with your day-to-day life, or getting worse, turn to a health care provider or a trusted friend or family member to figure out next steps. Anxiety disorders are very common — an estimated one in five adults have one. Whether it’s trying medication, therapy, or changing behavior, we need time and help to change, and we need to acknowledge that. Even one session with a therapist or counselor can sometimes help people with anxiety see that they are not alone and learn strategies that help them see and handle situations differently.
If you want to help someone who is held back by anxiety, let them know that you are there to help. Start by reminding them that you care about them and that you have noticed their struggles. Tell them that seeing a health care provider or therapist can help them feel better, and that you are willing to help them look into it. Give them the choice to come back to you for help when they are ready.
The solution is to learn to identify and manage worry before it derails us. We can stay above the influence of our reactions if we decide to put ourselves there. Being able to compartmentalize, to bring focus to the present, to respond with facts not fears, and to get help when needed are important.
Your mental health plays an important role in your overall well-being. Find out more about how your mind works, and how to help yourself and your loved ones through emotionally challenging times at ibx.com/knowyourmind.