Feeling anxious or worried from time to time is a normal experience. Research shows that more than 40 million adult Americans manage significant anxiety on a daily basis. Historically, anxiety served an adaptive function: to alert us when things in our environment seemed dangerous. After all, our ancestors needed to be prepared to run from a tiger at any given moment. These days, we are rarely chased by tigers and don’t need to be on heightened alert all the time, but we’re still left with a lot of residual worry and anxiety, which can be debilitating.
So how can you tell if your anxiety falls into a “normal” range? Typically we think of anxiety as normal if it doesn’t get in your way while you are busy living life. A panic attack, for example, brings life to a screeching halt and definitely gets in your way. Similarly, chronic worry occupies the majority of your thoughts and may prevent you from being able to pay attention, be creative, complete work, get to appointments on time, or engage in meaningful relationships. It can feel like trying to live life while carrying a really big rock around with you all the time. A lot of people are dealing with significant anxiety but because they have carried it all their lives, they have adapted and probably don’t even realize how heavy the weight of their anxiety is.
Here is a tip: Start paying attention to how many times a day you find yourself thinking worry thoughts or feeling anxiety in your body. If it’s more than five to seven times on most days, you are likely living with elevated anxiety levels.
Learning to manage anxiety can take a while. It’s like trying to break an ingrained habit. The first step is to make sure you have the right tools in your toolbox to address the anxiety. You may benefit from making an appointment with a counselor – they are trained to be able to quickly assess what tools you have and what tools you need to add. They will be able to help you come up with a strategy for your specific anxiety. In the meantime, here are a few ideas for managing your anxiety now…
- Lean into the anxiety. I know, it seems a little crazy. We spend so much time trying to push the anxiety away, but it’s actually more helpful to just approach it head on. Stop and think about what you are feeling anxious about and evaluate whether or not it is actually an immediate threat.
- Be gentle with yourself. Don’t expect that you are going to be able to go through life without ever feeling anxious. Rather than feeling guilty or like a failure when you have a bought of anxiety, remind yourself that you are working on it and it will get better.
- Play a logic game on your phone. The part of your brain that is highlighted on a scan when you are worried is not the same part of your brain that lights up when you are using logic, solving math problems, and making plans. When you feel anxious, if you pull out your phone and start playing a game that requires logic, you will move the activity in your brain from emotion to logic.
- Focus on the commonplace rather than the exception. Anxiety often focuses on the exception rather than the commonplace. Refocus, for example, on the number of planes that land safely in the world everyday, rather than the possibility that the one you are on might not. Or think about the number of times you have been able to pay your bills, rather than on the possibility that something could happen and you wouldn’t be able to.
- Ask for what you need. Anxiety is often isolating and lonely. Reach out to friends and family and be specific about what you need. Some reassurance? A hug? Some time to hang out and be silly? Let them be there for you.
A Licensed Psychologist, Dr. Wendy L. Dickinson received a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Georgia State University. Dr. Dickinson is currently adjunct faculty at Georgia State University and Richmont Graduate University, and is the Founder and Executive Director at GROW Counseling. Her specialities include stress management, trauma, addictions, relationships, and career and leadership development.