This blog post was written by Liadan Gunter, life coach at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.
Have you ever heard the phrase “you are what you eat”? If you eat cake every day for every meal, chances are you’re not going to feel very good. This concept has even expanded beyond food to account for all areas of consumption: what you read, listen to, see, and engage in. It implies that what you surround yourself with, you become. It highlights how important it is to engage in the type of activities that support you and how and who you wish to be. Understanding this is key to learning how to reduce anxiety.
I love this concept because I think it can apply to anxiety as well. However, I’d adapt it to be something like: “you are what you focus on.” This isn’t to say that you are at fault or in control of whether you have anxiety; it is not your fault. However, it is possible to reduce your anxiety by optimizing your focus. Anxiety is a form of stress.
Conversely, chronic exposure to stress can lead to the development of anxiety and other mental health disorders such as depression or even PTSD. Now, we all feel anxious from time to time about certain things, but there is a point when anxiety crosses over from just an emotion that’s experienced from time to time into the disordered form of anxiety such as generalized anxiety or social anxiety.
In this piece, when I refer to anxiety, I’m referring to the emotion most people experience from time to time—not the disorder of anxiety. However, while the tools discussed in this post can certainly be applied to those suffering from anxiety disorders, I don’t want to equate that anxiety disorders can simply be solved by employing these tools. Anxiety disorders are much more complex and nuanced than what can be solved via a blog post. That being said, this post is for those of you who do experience anxiety and want to learn some tips on how to reduce it and manage it better.
How to reduce anxiety: cope with anxiety by knowing when to focus on it and when not to
Remember how I mentioned above that anxiety is a form of stress? Well, in this section, I’ll also use the word stress to encompass anxiety, along with other uncomfortable pressures that you may feel. According to neuroscience research, there are two major approaches to coping with stress:
- Attend to the stressor by focusing on it
- Avoid the stressor by turning your attention away from it
Both strategies have their place regarding how to reduce anxiety, but it depends on the temporal dynamics of the stressor.
Generally, stress can be broken down into two categories:
Acute stress is a stressor that occurs over short periods, while chronic stress is a stressor that occurs over long periods.
Thus, when you’re dealing with a chronic stressor, the best strategy is to focus on it and work through the stressor as it produces better adaptation in the long run. If you’re dealing with an acute stressor, avoiding the stressor produces a reduced physiological reaction and can be more helpful.
What does this mean for you and reducing your daily anxiety?
Take this as an example. You’re dealing with short-term anxiety because you’re about to present in front of an audience. It’s the night before, and your head is all jumbled up and going in circles, and you feel enormously anxious about it. This is an example of an acute stressor. According to this theory, the best thing you can do in this situation is to distract yourself. Instead of thinking about how anxious you are about the presentation, you could do something to take your mind off of it. You could call a friend, watch a movie, go for a run, or go to an exercise class. The research shows that if you’re able to avert your attention away from stressors in these types of moments, you’ll calm your system down and reduce anxiety by lowering your cortisol levels.
However, let’s say you are experiencing anxiety at a chronic level. You have a really important assignment that’s approaching. You have been feeling anxious about it, leading you to procrastinate. Next thing you know, your procrastination has snowballed. You originally had four weeks to prepare for the project, you now have one and a half weeks—less than half the time you were allocated. Your anxiety is soaring, and with each passing day, it soars more, leading you to continue to avoid the project all together because it’s the source of your anxiety. Can you relate to this?
Well, this is the exact kind of scenario where it’s appropriate to engage with the source of your anxiety: the project. Your anxiety is building because you haven’t focused properly on the task at hand. Your anxiety is likely increasing due to fearing what your managers or clients will say when they realize you haven’t progressed.
What the science suggests is that it’s best to go all in on and focus on what is causing you anxiety. You need to come up with a plan and schedule to get this work done and stick to it. Perhaps, it means even talking to a manager or client to let them know what’s happened around this project’s deadline so that you can work out a new deadline. Going directly to the source of your anxieties here and coming up with a troubleshooting plan is the exact thing that will reduce your anxiety.
How to reduce anxiety: Cope with anxiety and stress by focusing on what you can control
It’s not only the type of stressor you’re facing that’s a factor, but how controllable it is. The basic principle of how to reduce anxiety is this: if a stressor is uncontrollable, it's better to avoid it. If it's controllable, it's best to attend to it. Let’s take an example where you’re anxious about whether or not your mother-in-law likes you, or really anyone you encounter. On one hand, you have control over your behavior and how you present yourself; however, you have no control over how they will receive and perceive you. In this case, it’s best to focus on what you can control in this scenario, such as how you behave in front of them.
Since it’s not possible to control if another person likes you if you catch yourself feeling anxious about it, try to shift your attention away from that and focus on what it is you are actually doing: how you are acting, how you want to behave, how you want to be seen, and what you like about you. Every time you catch yourself wondering or feeling anxious about whether the person likes you, shift your attention and ask: do I like how I am presenting myself?
Do you see what I did there? This demonstrates how you can shift your focus to what you can control and away from what you can’t. This is something that will truly reduce your anxiety.
How to get rid of the “noise”
It does get a little complicated sometimes, though, right? Sometimes stressors or anxiety can fall into several categories at once. For example, perhaps the stressor you’re facing that is giving you anxiety is both chronic and uncontrollable. The science says we should attend to chronic stressors but avoid uncontrollable ones—so what do we do here?
This is where a combination approach comes into play. You may have to evaluate these stressors closely to decide how and whether you should engage with them or avoid them. If you are to entirely avoid the chronic, uncontrollable stressor, it may lead to it never getting solved. The uncontrollable aspect makes it complicated, though, because it doesn’t do us any good to focus on things we can’t do anything about. In this scenario, it’s best to search for what aspects of the stressor you can control and do something about those. When it comes to the aspects of it that you can’t control, try your best to avoid focusing on them.
Let’s go back to the presentation example from before. It’s the night before the presentation, and you’re feeling anxiety about it. Let’s imagine you’re thinking about how you will be perceived the next day. Now, this presentation includes a chronic and an acute stressor. If you’ve been preparing for this presentation for over a month, for example, it’s a stressor that’s been on your plate for a while, so we could say it’s a chronic stressor. The anxiety about your performance is hitting you hard the night before, so it may also be an acute stressor.
Now, you can’t control how others will perceive you tomorrow, but you can control how much you have prepared and the content you’ll cover. So presumably, when you are assigned the project, you’re told you have one month to prepare it. What you can do here is to focus all your efforts on creating a presentation that you feel confident in. That means you put your energy and focus onto the aspects you have control over and avoid the areas you don’t, like how others will perceive you.
So, how do you shift through the noise? Distract yourself from the anxiety you feel from the source you can’t control and shift that attention to an area you can control. Let’s say it again, in other words, shift your attention to what you can control that is in your best interest to control. Just because we can control something doesn’t mean that we should.
Use these principles to guide you as you face your anxieties that pop up to determine whether you should focus on the source of your anxiety or not. You can apply these strategies in a variety of different domains and at many different levels—if you’re a company leader, manager, or employee alike—these tools can make a difference for you.
If you can master when it’s appropriate to engage with a stressor and when it’s just not in your best interest, this optimizes your focus. It can reduce your daily anxiety about the stressors you’re facing and is ultimately a great approach to how to reduce anxiety.
For more on this topic, check out these blog posts:
- How the Science Behind Wellbeing Can Support Your Health
- Coping Strategies For Anxiety At Work
- The Best Foods for Anxiety and Depression
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