It seems like everyone is talking about anxiety these days. But what exactly is anxiety? And is it really possible to control anxiety levels?
In this week’s podcast and blog, I will be talking about how anxiety is a signal that we need to listen to, not an illness we need to manage. It is a reaction to life’s challenges, not a biological disease to be treated. Feelings of anxiety are actually warning signs, telling us that something is going on in our lives that needs attention, ASAP!
Anxiety provides the opportunity for change because it signals what is wrong and what is causing damage in our brains and bodies—it tells us what needs to be addressed in our lives. Life is of course a process, an ongoing series of events, many of which are challenging, and anxiety can actually be one of our greatest teachers. Yes, it is uncomfortable, and yes, it is not something that is nice to experience. Undoubtedly, it needs to be addressed and resolved as soon as it surfaces, but, in doing so, we can learn to use periods of anxiety as opportunities to grow, mature and discover more about ourselves and the way we think.
We can also use these moments to build up our resilience to stress and our tolerance to adversity, rather than just shying away from our anxieties, which will only make matters worse! An issue swept under the rug is still an issue!
So, how can you address and manage anxiety in your life?
1. Embrace it:
Acknowledge the source of your anxiety, and tell yourself it is okay to feel anxious at times—this is part of the human condition. Today, we tend to medicalize human emotion: if you have anxiety, something must be wrong with you. But this is not the case—we all get anxious at times. Remind yourself that you are not mentally ill! Indeed, by acknowledging your anxiety, you are actually bringing it into your conscious awareness and weakening the mental and physical bonds of the memory that are making you anxious! This prepares you for change, while suppressing anxiety will just make it grow and strengthen in your non-conscious like a virus, affecting your thought patterns and future actions.
I have actually trained myself to embrace anxiety; I now know how to conquer it and make it work to my advantage. For example, I am currently running a complex clinical trial, and there certainly are many opportunities to become anxious! However, I have trained myself to use these moments to acknowledge my own fears and concerns and how I am reacting to these thoughts, rather than letting them influence my own thoughts and actions by just ignoring or suppressing them.
Embracing our anxieties prepares us for real, lasting change!
Set a meeting with yourself to deal with the root cause or causes of your anxiety, either right now or later on in the day (yes, this may sound a bit odd but it is actually a really effective mental tool). If later, compartmentalize your anxiety by intentionally setting a reminder on your phone or jotting down the “meeting” in your calendar within 24 hours, and shifting your focus to the task at hand (don’t worry, this will take some practice!). This is a proactive step that gives you a sense of control over your life, even when things may seem like they are falling apart.
You do this after step 1: first you acknowledge your anxiety, then you make a plan to deal with it. By doing so, you intentionally determine not to let the anxiety affect what you are doing right now—you are in control, not your anxiety.
3. Do a mental autopsy:
This requires looking back (like a regular autopsy) at your anxious experiences, analyzing them, and examining why something went the way it did and how you can improve, whether this is something at work, a relationship issue, and so on.
The key to a good “mental autopsy” is understanding. When you start to understand your experiences, you can reconceptualize them (or redesign them) by learning from them, which helps you stop letting your anxiety control you. A mental autopsy essentially helps you move forward and learn from the past.
So, how do you do this? When the anxious experience has ended, start asking, answering and discussing with yourself why it happened, how do it happen, how did I react, what were my triggers and so on, which will help you gain insight into the issue and see how it can be avoided in the future, and how you can improve the way you react the next time something similar happens.
This is a useful way of determining the root cause (or causes) of your anxiety and reconceptualizing it. You essentially examine your thoughts and behavior over 21 days for around 7-16 minutes a day during your “anxiety meetings” (see step 2). As you do this, you are acknowledging all the details associated with your anxiety in progressive, baby steps, and thinking through them in a focused, problem-solving way. You will be using a lot of “why” questions: “why do you feel this way?” and “why does x cause this reaction?”, for example. Capture your insights by writing in a journal or on your device, so that you can examine your patterns of behavior, gain insight into how to change them and practice the new perspective regarding the root cause of your anxiety you have been reconceptualizing.
My new app Switch is a great tool for helping you deal with the root cause of your anxiety. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your anxiety, and help you build a healthy new thinking habits through the mental process of reconceptualization.
4. Imagine yourself in the future:
The process of imagination actually creates actual physical networks in the brain. When done in an “optimism mode”, which I talk about in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, we develop what I call a possibilities mindset: instead of seeing a series of failures, we see a series of learning opportunities and open doors. This process strengthens and builds the newly reconceptualized thought structure we spoke about in step 3, making the solution (or solutions) to your anxiety more real and accessible. For example, imagine yourself in the moment, when you have accomplished x or overcame a hurdle. How do you feel? What are you doing? How are you celebrating your victory? Ask yourself questions like these and write down yoyr answers.
As we imagine our future, we actually change the present—our brain responds positively to our hopes and dreams! However, it is important to remember this works both ways—imagining a positive future can have positive results in the present, while fearing the future can potentially make what we fear a reality because our expectations change the structure of our brains, impacting what we think, say and do in the future. In quantum physics this is known as retroactive causation.
These 4 tips can help you build resilience by managing and dealing with your anxiety. They activate genetic switches in the hippocampus, which is “turned on” as we process information, changing it from short to long-term memory. So, if you build a habit of training yourself to be a proactive when it comes to managing your anxiety, you can make some massive changes in your brain, body and your life! You will learn to embrace your fears and move forward, rather than being consumed by them.