How does anxiety feel to you?
For me, it’s pinching in my chest. The prickly sensation of blood pumping faster through my veins. Shallow breathing. Giddiness.
I’ve been anxious forever and a day.
As a small child, I remember counting and recounting the change given to me to buy milk from the corner shop. What if the change was wrong and the shopkeeper laughed at me or accused me of trying to steal?
On the cusp of adolescence, I worried for months before my performance in the school play, where despite my shyness I’d somehow been cast in the lead role. The teacher producing the play believed in me. I, on the other hand, did not. I practised so frantically I can still remember many of my lines over twenty years later. I had chronic insomnia from the start of rehearsals to the moment I stepped quaking onto the stage on opening night.
And this pattern of anxiety still haunts me today. If I’m honest, I’m anxious about writing about being anxious. What if I sound absurd? What if nobody cares? What if? What if? What if?
But here’s the thing I’ve realised: anxiety always requires action.
In this case, that’s publishing this story. Why? To prove my worries about writing it don’t really matter.
True, everyone could hate this piece, but what’s the worst that could happen? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest I probably won’t spontaneously combust. And by pressing publish, I’m stepping out of the unknown. I can no longer speculate on what might happen because I’m about to actually find out. In this way, I’m halting the worry in its tracks.
Worries usually spread and escalate because we do nothing with them.
For example, you’ve found a lump on our neck. You don’t think it was there a week ago, but can’t be sure. You suddenly panic, what if it’s been there months? Years? You Google it, and now you’re pretty sure you’re dying.
In this situation, you can try deep breathing or yoga until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to diminish your worry; you know what will? Calling the doctor to book an appointment.
That’s absolutely not to say that anxiety aids don’t help. They can be a lifeline when you’re worried. But you need to take action to resolve the problem first.
Ok, so how do I actually make sure I do this?
It sounds easy, but of course, it’s not. Like anything, it takes practice. But there are three steps you can take any time you’re consumed with anxiety. I’ve tried them, and they help.
- Identify why you’re worried. Sometimes anxiety feels like an indeterminate dark cloud. That’s why it’s important to look a little closer when you’re anxious and define what it is you’re actually worried about.
- Once you’ve identified your worries, question their validity. Sometimes challenging your concerns can reduce them to something a bit more manageable. What’s the worst that could happen if that job interview or date doesn’t go well? Is it really true that you’ve embarrassed yourself and felt shy every time you’ve been at a party?
- Make a step-by-step plan. If you’re worried about finding a new job, all of the calls you’ll have to make, interviews you’ll have to prepare for etc. can feel overwhelming. Solving problems becomes much easier when you break them down into smaller pieces; you absolutely don’t have to tackle everything at once. Take one small action a day and you’ll still resolve your worry over time.
Whenever I feel frozen with worry, I remember this quote:
“Happiness is not the absence of problems; it’s the ability to deal with them.”—Steve Maraboli
If we can learn to take action every time we’re anxious, we’ll be able to address our problems more effectively—and hopefully live happier, more peaceful lives too.