I’ve learned a lot in my therapeutic journey. I thought therapy would be about a trained professional identifying what’s wrong with me and telling me how to fix it; however, it’s been more about self-exploration. She asks guiding questions to help me get to the root causes of my thoughts, feelings, and behavior. One of the few things she’s ever just “given” me is a list of ideas on how to better manage my anxiety. This list is far from comprehensive, and it’s one that was developed over the course of a year in therapy. These things won’t cure anxiety—nothing can do that—but they will help you manage your mental health if you practice them consistently and intentionally.
Learn to question your thoughts.
Not every thought is true, and not every thought deserves your attention. Learning to question the foundation and validity of your thoughts can help you decide on a course of action to resolve the anxious thoughts. If you question these intrusive thoughts and find that they are not founded on facts, then you can dismiss them. If they are founded on facts, you can develop a plan to work through whatever anxiety these thoughts are causing. If the thoughts are about something that is within your power to change, then take steps to change it. If it is not within your power to change, then use one of your healthy coping mechanisms to redirect your thoughts to something more productive. The idea here is to use logic to disprove the anxious thoughts.
Write out your thoughts and feelings.
Writing out your thoughts and feelings can take many forms. You don’t have to be “a writer” to write about things. Sometimes it helps just to get them out of your head, even if they don’t make sense. Maybe especially when they don’t make sense. Putting words to your thoughts and feelings can help you process them. I like charts and graphs for this purpose. If I can organize my thoughts and feelings on a page, it helps me unravel the tangled web they create in my mind. I also do what I call a “mind dump” of everything that’s been spinning in my brain and causing me anxiety. Most of the time, these end up being scribbled lists on whatever paper is nearby at the time. Something about putting them on paper makes me feel like they’re no longer taking up space in my head.
Don’t dwell on intrusive thoughts.
When you have an anxious mind, it’s easy to latch onto one of those intrusive thoughts and let it drag you down into the worry spiral. Instead of dwelling on these thoughts and being a prisoner inside your own mind, take control of your thoughts. Practice dismissing intrusive thoughts the moment they enter your mind. At first, the best way to do this may be to busy yourself with another activity that involves great concentration. If you’re concentrating on the task at hand, your brain will be too busy to dwell on the intrusive thought. Some of my favorite anxiety-reducing activities are adult paint-by-numbers (Amazon has a great selection!), reading a book that keeps my attention, writing, and trying new recipes—baking is best for this because it requires precise measurements and attention to detail. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where it becomes second nature to dismiss anxious thoughts without needing a mental distraction.
Think about your feelings and what causes them.
Emotional intelligence is a major part of effectively managing anxiety. Understanding your mental state means you have to actually sit and think about what you’re feeling and what is causing you to feel that way. Once you understand the deeper roots of your thoughts and feelings, you can begin to process them and understand why you feel the way that you feel. Understanding often brings acceptance.
Identify your triggers.
There will never be a time when you can completely avoid everything that triggers your anxiety, and you shouldn’t try to. However, when you know what your triggers are, you can prepare yourself to face them and make sure you know how to recover afterwards. For example, many people experience heightened anxiety in social situations. If you have identified social activities as a trigger, then you can prepare yourself for those interactions, and you can take the appropriate steps to put boundaries in place (limiting the time you’ll spend there, limiting the frequency of social obligations, determining an “escape plan,” etc.) and to ensure that you know how you need to recharge after these interactions.
Focus on the things you can change or control.
The root of most anxious thoughts is a fear of the unknown. It’s human nature to shy away from situations that are outside of our control. If life has taught us anything, it’s that we will often face circumstances we cannot change or control. The key to managing anxiety in these situations is not to avoid them altogether—we know that’s impossible. The key is to learn to refocus your attention and accept that, even though you may not be in control of the situation, that doesn’t mean something bad is going to happen. A need to control environments and circumstances often comes from a past trauma that caused you to feel powerless. When you’re feeling powerless in a situation, focus on the things that are within your control, and ask yourself if anything will go terribly and irreparably wrong if you relinquish control. Most of the time, the answer is no. Most of the time, your anxiety is lying to you and making you catastrophize.
Don’t count on others’ behavior to assuage your anxiety.
It’s really easy to play the blame game when you’re feeling anxious. You might find yourself thinking things like, “If they would just communicate more/better/in the way I want them to, then I would worry less.” You are the only one who can manage your anxiety. If anxiety is not a new thing for you, then you know that, no matter how other people behave, the anxiety is always there. Instead of expecting others to modify their behavior because it causes you stress, learn to manage your anxiety independently of others’ behavior. That’s not to say that you can’t let people know what your expectations are and require that they respect your boundaries. Clearly communicating expectations and boundaries is actually one of the best ways to manage relationship anxiety. What you have to understand is that people will not always behave in a way that eases your anxiety, and you shouldn’t expect them to. It is no one’s responsibility but your own to manage your anxiety. Of course it’s important to have a support system and to surround yourself with people who understand that mental health is a real and important issue, but it’s not their job to change their behavior to accommodate you.
Learn to put your needs before others’ wants.
Sometimes anxiety is exacerbated by this idea that you need to live up to everyone’s expectations. This is impossible. Setting healthy and appropriate boundaries in every part of life—professional, romantic, family—is necessary in managing anxiety. When you constantly put others’ wants before your own needs, you create an environment in which anxiety thrives. Learning to say no or not right now is a great tool for practicing self-care.
Limit interactions with people who amplify negative thoughts and feelings.
As soon as you read that subheading, I’m sure someone’s name popped into your head. We all have those people in our lives who seem to feed off of other people’s distress. I’m not telling you to cut those people off entirely, but sometimes it’s necessary to limit how much interaction you have with them. If you walk away feeling drained, then it’s probably a relationship you want to limit your investment in.
Develop a coping process that works for you.
Healthy coping mechanisms are different for everyone. The key is finding something that works for you and being willing to modify it as needed. What works in one situation may not work in another. A good place to start is with breathing exercises. A symptom of anxiety is increased heart rate and blood pressure. Practicing breathing exercises when you start to feel your heart rate pick up can help ease anxiety before it becomes unmanageable. From there, you can experiment with other tools that may help you.
Instead of trying to anticipate others’ feelings or thoughts, simply ask them.
Communication is very important for the anxious mind. If questions are left unanswered, that gives your brain a lot of room to come up with worst case scenarios. You may find that you often try to figure other people out or to anticipate how they might respond to something before you say it. Instead of torturing yourself with these made up situations, go ahead and ask the question or voice the concern. The worst outcome is very rarely the common outcome. You’ll save yourself a lot of overthinking and restlessness if you just go ahead and communicate with the person.
Instead of assuming that people know what you want, just tell them.
Much the same as anticipating others’ feelings, assuming other people know how you feel or what you want can also magnify anxious thoughts. Just because you clearly communicate your wants doesn’t mean people are obligated to meet those wants. That’s not the point here. The point is for you to take control of your own thoughts and behavior and to work towards fearlessly communicating in an attempt to effectively manage your mental health.
Treat yourself with kindness and empathy.
The final and most important tool on this list is to treat yourself with kindness. While you can’t blame others for your anxiety, you also can’t blame yourself. Anxiety is not a choice. Negative self-talk and placing unrealistic expectations on yourself only serves to deteriorate your mental state. When you feel like a failure for not meeting expectations or for having a lapse in mental health management, the last thing you need is to beat yourself up for it. Instead, remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and that you’ve come a long way from where you started. The goal is not perfection; the goal is progress.