Tomorrow is your wedding day. And as the love of your life rests peacefully in preparation for the big day, you lie awake in bed. You know that this is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, but just can't help to shake away all of your concerns. Does love last forever? Or does it turn into toleration? Will you be good parents? No matter how much you reassure yourself that this is the best decision of your life, you lay there stricken with anxiety.
Whether it's life changing experiences, or even the small every day challenges, anxiety finds a way to take hold of you. That's because it's a natural part of life. Anxiety is that primitive “fight or flight" instinct you were born with. It's that bad feeling you get when you think something bad is going to happen. It's hard to discern between natural amounts of anxiety and the crippling kind, the kind that makes day to day life almost impossible. When you suffer from an anxiety disorder, you have two choices on how to deal with it: let it wash over you like a tidal wave and drown, or use it to your advantage.
How Anxiety Can Control You
When anxiety becomes overwhelming with scary alarms, such as heart palpitations and racing thoughts, it's understandable to just want it all to stop immediately. The easiest thing to do is dive right into flight mode. Take a moment to think about how often you default to flight mode. Is it all the time? The worst thing you can do is avoid your problems. Avoidance is when you stay clear of situations that can potentially trigger an anxiety attack. While this is a common coping strategy, it is the most problematic. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Some people's lives become so restricted that they avoid normal activities, such as grocery shopping or driving."
When anxiety limits your ability to do daily tasks , try approaching the situation from a different angle.
Have you ever considered how others do so well under pressure and stress? Anxiety can be used for good—some even consider anxiety a source of motivation. Doing so helps with lowering levels of emotional exhaustion, which is a constant state of physical and emotional fatigue caused by everyday stress. This stress can come from work, school, family, and anything really. It piles up over time and drains us or all our energy and motivation to keep trying—the more you try, the heavier the burden.
But it's possible to use this stress to add momentum to our lives. It's a matter of learning how to convert destructive feelings into constructive fuel.
1. Redefine Danger
First, try and look at anxiety in a different light. Anxiety is a warning sign, not a confirmation that something bad will happen. Imagine you have a fear of rats. The sight of a rat jumpstarts your anxiety and terrifies you. You find yourself thinking that the rat will jump up, bite you, and infect you. Right now, you understand anxiety as this feeling of panic, fear, and worry that arises whenever you're in danger.But when you're “in danger," your life isn't always at risk. Here, you've associated a mere rat sighting with eminent death. However just seeing a rat shouldn't be your definition of high-level danger. Seeing the disgusting rodent should just be a signal to be more cautious of your surroundings. Save your energy for more stressful scenarios such as a rat coming directly at you.
Specialists at John Hopkins Health Alerts support the use of exposure therapy and the practice of making fear hierarchies to help with putting things into perspective. Up to 90% of anxiety patients have shown progress in learning to live with their phobias using this technique. When putting together a fear hierarchy, you look at your fear as an umbrella, and see what situations fall under that umbrella. Some are much more threatening than others. If you're running away from any degree of exposure to your fear, then that means that you haven't clearly defined danger. Creating a list of least dangerous to most dangerous will help you identify the spectrum of threats. And through comparison, you'll eventually be able to identify the least dangerous situations as safe in comparison to the most frightening ones.
2. Channel Stress
Pressure turns coal into diamonds. Learning how to channel your stress into motivational energy takes time because stress is both physically and mentally draining. Imagine a time when you felt an unbelievable amount of pressure. Maybe your boss has taken a liking to you and has assigned you a big project. You weren't given much direction besides to get it done fast and well. You haven't had much experience and feel overwhelmed. What if you can't do it right? What if you don't meet expectations? Instead of letting these problematic thoughts take hold of you and send you down a spiraling hole of anxiety, look at the situation this way: this is your time to shine. When these thoughts start to manifest, immediately challenge them. More often than not, these thoughts may not have any factual evidence or logical reasoning. Ask yourself the following:
- Have I let my boss down before?
- Have I failed in the past?
- Have people refused to help me in the past?
Most likely, the answers to these questions are: no, no, and no. These problematic thoughts are known as cognitive distortions and cause you to underestimate yourself by making you believe in things that aren't necessarily true. When you challenge the validity of these thoughts, you go into fight mode. Remind yourself that you can do this right, you will exceed expectations. When you learn how to challenge these thoughts, you put yourself in a position to prove your fears wrong. In a way, you're turning your struggle with anxiety into a competition.
3. Stop Doing Your Best
Studies found that there are two kinds of people: those who do their best, and those who do better. Those that do their best ultimately end up more emotionally drained and exhausted than those who do better. Because when you do your best, you settle.
“Doing better" starts with accepting that what you've done isn't good enough. For those with anxiety, whatever they do isn't good enough for them. Here, you either wallow in your shortcomings, or take this as an opportunity to improve yourself. According to Dr. Alexander Bystritsky, Director of the UCLA Anxiety Disorders Program, underestimating your own abilities is one of the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety patients. Telling yourself that you can do better is a way to look at your faults or deficiencies and reject them. It's a matter of proving yourself wrong.
Will You Turn Your Weakness Into a Strength?
Tomorrow is your wedding day. Yes, some people fall out of love. Yes, some families become broken. Yes, divorce rates keep going up. Your fears are real, and you're wise to pay attention to all scenarios, good and bad.
Learning how to work with your alarms and how to refocus your stress will help you gain some control over your condition. But the truth of the matter is that you're the only one who can take control of your anxiety. Practice these tactics, and have a little faith in yourself and the future.
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Date of original publication: June 26, 2014
Updated: October 23, 2015