There are a lot of unknowns in life.
We don’t know if the date will go well. We don’t know if a car will hit us when we cross the street. Or if the bird will use your head as a toilet on your good hair day! We don’t know if your regular annual physical may lead to a heart surgery. We don’t know that our kids will outlive us. We don’t know if we will find our LOL. We don’t know if we will really lose weight, keep it off or regain it. We don’t always know if declining that offer because we are holding out for another is a good idea. We don’t know if the new idea that we are trying to get some funding will take off. We don’t know that the plane we fly on will not disappear from the airspace.
No wonder you are anxious. If you don’t feel any anxiety you are either one heck of a lucky man or woman or a complete fool or both. Either way, pat yourself on your back and write another post on tinybuddha or elephant journal. You may not even need to read this one. And contact me about a guest post.
In the meanwhile, here we are. I want to share my counter-intuitive but definitive guide to managing anxiety. The religious folks cure their anxiety through prayer but research suggests that it doesn’t work if you don’t believe. So this is a really good guide for those who want to go beyond belief.
- You don’t control everything, you control freak! Personally, I don’t think god does either. My take is that the world is full of willful individuals (just like you and me) and politics-ridden organizations. Which is why you really cannot predict and control all the externalities. You might have done everything right, have the right qualifications and perfect letters of recommendation. But the job you applied for? They already had an internal candidate. You were just EEOC front. You could be a great catch but it doesn’t mean your date will fall in love with you. Or you thought he was perfect on paper but found no chemistry in person. You put your child in Suzuki violin from when he was three and hoped that your little tyke would be the next Mozart but he hates music. The reality is that much as we control freaks would like to, we cannot always control what happens outside us. So accept that. If you can accept with grace, good for you. If you have to kicked and dragged by life, so be it. In the interest of full disclosure, I belong to the second group and like to pretend to be among the first.
- Own your anxiety! Once you accept you cannot control everything, accept that it is natural to be anxious. Embrace your anxiety and fear. We don’t and can’t all need to be happy and light all the time. Do worry about your child, your parents, and the world. That is what separates us from other animals. You worry because you can imagine a future. My dog doesn’t worry about his or any arbitrary future. But for us, humans and my dog, (yes that little poodle will jump on you, Weaver!), fear is a gift. Fear says, ‘here pay attention to this.’ The trick is in letting it it guide you without controlling you. It is not helpful to pretend like you are not worried or anxious. Ostrich effect, anyone? Believe me, pretending will bite your ass. A couple of years ago when I was going through tests for a potentially serious illness, I was very anxious but I was trying very hard to pretend like it was nothing. Guess what? It spilled into my relationship and I broke up with my LOL. It may have been much easier and healthier to accept it and even share it.
- Are you being rational? After acknowledging and accepting the anxiety or fear, you need to separate irrational from rational anxieties. Because continuing irrational anxiety leads to cognitive rigidity. When you experience cognitive rigidity, your brain is not open to alternatives. To prevent it, engage your System 2 Thinking. Be deliberate, slow, logical, and rational for this step. Distinguish between real concerns and imagined anxieties. Despite the recent disappearing airplanes, someone’s chance of dying in an airplane accident is far less than them committing suicide. So no need to stop flying. Yeah, that first date sucked. Just go back on Match.com. Let of go imagined anxieties. But if every test came back positive, don’t live in la-la land! It could be real and you need to address it. You could be pregnant or have cancer or really, really suck at Math. Do not ignore empirical evidence! When you take care of the real concerns, your imagined anxieties will calm down.
- Imagine the worst! Once you identify the real concerns, engage in worst-case scenario thinking. Yes, I am telling you to imagine the worst. Contrary to the current ‘stick your fingers in your ears, everything will be okay, tra la la la’ school of thought, worst-case scenario approach is useful, practical, and comforting. Because once you prepare for the worst-case scenario, anything else is a better outcome.
You are worried that your company may be downsizing soon. What if you lose the job? Can you bounce back? Do you have skills or contacts that can help you? Where would you live if you cannot pay the rent? Do you have an emergency stash? Do you have anything to sell? Your car? Your favorite guitar? Do you have friends or family who would put up with your sorry ass until you bounce back? Can you move to a place with a lower cost of living? Or better job opportunities? Even if it means you will have to be away from your boyfriend for now? It might end up that you don’t lose the job or you have a fantastic new opportunity that opens up before even the layoff. But having addressed the worst-case scenario will help you be confident and not anxious because you know what to do if your worst fear were to become real.
When I got ill, the first thing I did was to imagine my worst-case scenario that I may not come out of the operation theater alive. My biggest concern at that point was my son’s financial and emotional well being if I were to die. Yes, it is a morbid thought but it is also a responsible mother’s loving thought. I know I am irreplaceable in his life but dammit, dying does not mean I get to be irresponsible too. So I set up a trust fund for my son (I am not wealthy but there is a very affordable trust fund company called Kiss Trust), reviewed my will and guardianship for my son and got all the financial documents in order. That did not worsen my chances of survival but tremendously increased my peace of mind. Don’t be afraid to run the worst-case scenario and see how you would address it and make practical plans. To me, once that was done and taken care of, I was cheerful, brave, and ready to face my surgeon. Yes, paradoxical but considering the most frightening possibility in all earnestness made me light and easy.
To run the worst-case scenario without getting all weepy and melodramatic, remind yourself to engage your System 2 Thinking. I could have been crying for weeks and months or pretended like I knew I was going to be totally okay but honestly, I didn’t and I couldn’t know my situation until after the surgery. So taking care of practical arrangements really helped me more positive going into the surgery.
5. Do not trust yourself. Ask yourself, “Am I doing the right thing?”, but with a grain of salt. To do this, you need to be able to trust your judgment. If you are a love addict, for example, it might not be a good idea to trust your judgment about your relationship decision. Similarly, if your body is addicted to sugar, you cannot trust your body cues. You must be sure that you can trust your brain to identify cravings and triggers from real hunger cues and not fall for them! Given that caveat that you may not be trustworthy, really, ask yourself. If you deeply believe in something and you can handle the consequences, go for it. That cross-country move because you fell in love with the small town in Maine you visited in summer may not be a great idea for everyone but it may work for you. If not, you will figure it out. And it is not an irreversible decision. So ask yourself what you want to do. Not what the world wants for you but what do you want? A lot of times, reducing the lies we tell ourselves reduces anxiety.
6. Be your own super hero. Develop self-efficacy through self-belief in your own ability and resilience. I find that when I am faced with a situation that evokes despair or fear, I remind myself of the times that I felt very strong and reliving that experience gives me strength. Maybe it was the year you spent abroad where you didn’t know anyone but returned with a whole bunch of friends and great memories. Or the time you took a job in which you had to learn new stuff that you didn’t think you could but managed to ace it. I always remind my sister of the time when she started a new job after a fairly long break from the job market. She was very nervous about getting back to the workforce and started out as a temp but within three years, she was No. 2 in her department and they wanted to groom her for the position of the head of the department. You don’t get that without persistence and resilience. If you have survived this long article, I am pretty sure you have large untapped reserves of strength, persistence, and resilience. Draw on it and change your self-narrative from an anxious victim to super hero.
7. Ask someone. What would (blank) do or say in this situation? When in doubt, I always ask this question. To me, very frequently, it is my friend, Anita. She is someone who I admire and respect very much. I know she almost always acts with grace, generosity, and integrity. So I might call her or summon her in my head. Yes, I am like that. I told you, I have a lot of chatter in my head. Sometimes they belong to people I love. Now that my dad is no longer with us, I always ask the question, “What would Appa say?” And sometimes when I am anxious, I talk to my mother. I don’t talk to her a lot about problems or issues that I am facing. We don’t have that kind of relationship. But talking to her soothes me. Mostly it is probably food or some family gossip. I also know if I were to ask her, she would come and take care of me. And she did. When I had my surgery, she came all the way to the frozen Tundra of the north and took tender care of me for months. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, you really should focus on developing a social network.
If you don’t have any real people to talk to, you could also ask the same question of your favorite authors and characters. ‘What would Liz Bennett do?’ is always a good question. But at the same time, be careful whom you ask. I don’t think summoning Sylvia Plath during an anxious moment is a really a good idea. Susan Sontag, probably, when you want to feel brave and bold. If my anxiety is due to the ethical nature of the issue, I may turn to Isabel Dalhousie. I think she would gently admonish me if I wanted to avoid a so-so friend who is in some sort of a misery and will bring my mood down. Of course with ethical situations, always make the decision about which you need to be least secretive. That is a good guide. If you do not recognize any of these characters and do not have real friends, it is right that you are anxious. Your life really needs an overhaul. Please find a good therapist. I have a therapist on demand when life gets too overwhelming.
8. Focus on activity. Develop an understanding of time frames around uncertain activities and decisions and set appropriate intermediate rewards. You attended an interview and are waiting to hear from them. You really want this job. Your new squeeze hasn’t called you from his or her trip yet. You have already sensed that they are starting to feel crowded by you or that they have lost interest. Heck, may be that is why they went on this trip. So you know that you need to be patient, but the uncertainty is killing you. I understand. Or you really, really want to master this material. Instead, you keep checking the phone obsessively. Or refresh your email sixty times a second. Or take a drag of the cigarette when you just promised yourself that you will quit for the final time. Instead of beating yourself up, have a realistic time frame and offer yourself intermediate incentives or rewards. Okay, I won’t check my phone for another three hours but I will have a drink afterwards. No, just kidding. Self-medicating to avoid anxiety does not help you in the long run but self-soothing is good.
9. Learn to self-soothe. It comes in handy. Go watch an episode of a show that you need to catch up on, lose yourself in the garden, take a nap, go for a run, or a hike or a swim, talk to a friend or your mother. Or write. I find reading and writing therapeutic and calming during times of anxiety. Meditate, do yoga, whatever helps you. But self-soothing without working through any of the real, practical issues will make you delusional and potentially a social burden. Because you didn’t take responsibility for your own life, the society or someone else will have to and that comes at a cost.
10. Practice self-compassion. Yes, you really cannot control anything except your own actions. But sometimes even that is crapshoot. Accept that we all make decisions based on the information we have at that point. We operate on bounded rationality. Our cognitive capacity is not infinite. So prioritizing pressing concerns is a much better strategy. Some worries do not deserve the time or energy.
PS1: As always, it is your life. If you want to spend it curled up in a fetal position, it is your decision. So this is not a definitive guide. I used the title to see if I could get more traffic. But it is damn close!
PS2: Meditation and mindfulness practices are really good to counter anxiety. You can be of any or no religion and still engage in mindfulness practice.