Robert’s palms were sweating and his heart was pounding. His big presentation was scheduled in less than an hour and he was starting to panic. What if he forgot his lines? What if he made a complete fool out of himself? His job was on the line and his anxiety was building.
Jenny was also apprehensive. She’d been trying to muster the courage to ask her boss for a raise for several weeks now, but every time she thought about doing so, she became too nervous to say anything.
We have all experienced anxiety at one time or another, although some people tend to struggle with nervousness more than others. Some of the common symptoms of anxiety are feelings of fear or panic, repetitive thoughts about the situation, difficulties sleeping, muscle tension, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, restlessness, nausea, and cold or sweaty palms and feet.
Part of our discomfort stems from our fear of being criticized, ridiculed, or rejected. We all have a basic need for love, acceptance, and validation, and tend to avoid situations that will jeopardize our relationships with others in any way. This is especially true if we have grown up in dysfunctional families, where these primary needs were not met and we were taught instead to behave in certain ways to please others and discount our own needs and emotions.
We also frequently tend to play over and over in our minds the worst-case scenario, which only leads us to feel even more anxious about the situation. Rather than visualizing the outcome that we are hoping for, we make ourselves sick with our inner horror stories.
So how do we go about coping with anxiety in a healthier way? The following are some helpful techniques to begin to get our fears under control:
- Take 10 deep breaths, focusing on the sensation of expansion in your chest and abdomen that occurs while inhaling and the release while exhaling.
- Take some time the day before a stressful event to become physically active. Working out or going for a long walk are ways to decrease your stress levels. Doing so will also help you get a better night’s sleep.
- Before bedtime, journal about your feelings of anxiety and the obsessive thoughts you have been having. Putting your emotions down on paper can often get them off your chest and prevent you from ruminating about them throughout the night.
- Whenever you start to imagine the worst-case scenario, try to picture what you would like to happen instead. For example, if you are worried about an upcoming speech that you have to give, imagine remembering your words with ease and receiving a standing ovation afterward.
- Lower your stress levels by doing relaxation techniques and/or listening to calming music. Help your physical body to relax by lying down or getting into a comfortable position, then progressively focus on contracting each of your muscles then releasing them. Start with your toes and feet and slowly work your way up to your face and scalp.
- Try to gain some perspective about your fears by thinking about other times in your life that you may have dealt with a similarly difficult or stressful situation. How did you cope at that time? What are some of the strengths that you used then and can call on again?
- If you are feeling anxious about talking to your boss (or another authority figure) about a specific problem, consider trying to role-play the conversation with a friend or therapist first. Practicing what you will say can help you feel more comfortable when the time comes to actually have that conversation.
- Use mindfulness to tune into the emotions that you are feeling and allow yourself to feel them fully. Much of the time, we avoid the direct experience of our emotions, especially those that are uncomfortable, such as fear and anxiety. This tends to intensify the uncomfortable feelings rather than diminish them. To experience them, try to tune into the actual physical location in your body where the tension or fear is stored. Do you feel a knot in the pit of your stomach? Are your neck and shoulders tensed up? Allow yourself to fully experience the physical sensations and you will often find that they shift as you accept and honor them.
If you have tried some or all of these techniques and are still experiencing a considerable amount of anxiety, you may want to consider working with an empathic therapist. Although a certain amount of anxiety is a normal part of life, when stress becomes overwhelming and starts to interfere with our ability to function on a day-by-day basis, help is likely needed. Working with a compassionate therapist can assist you with facing some of your fears in a safe setting and bring you back in touch with your innate sense of peace and joy.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Wendy Salazar, MFT, therapist in San Diego, California
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