Anxiety and stress go hand in hand: Usually when you are anxious, you are also in a state of stress. (Ever been stuck in traffic on the way to the airport, when you are already cutting it close to your departure time?) And when you are stressed, particularly if you are a high-functioning, take-control type of person, you are likely dealing with some anxious feelings too (Case in point: Work deadlines keeping you up at night).
This is all normal—and, actually, very rational. In many cases, anxiety is just extra mental energy that comes as a byproduct of caring a lot about how you show up in the world. That is a good thing! It means that you have high standards and strive to be the best version of yourself. When you think of your anxiety in that way—as a bonus drive to do and be better—you can start to view it with kinder eyes. That alone can help curb its potential to stop you in your tracks or make you feel down on yourself.
In fact, looking at your nervous energy as positive is an incredible way to turn it into an advantage. This discovery is precisely what led me to write my new book, Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety. If you are not sure where to start, here are three anxiety-management tools from my book that you can use today to keep stress low and your productivity high.
When you are anxious, you might think you do not have a second to spare on anything aside from dealing with what is stressing you out. But one of the best things you can do to calm your anxiety in the moment and set yourself up for success is taking a pause to focus on your breath.
Breathing exercises have been a go-to for therapists and mindfulness teachers for decades, for a reason: By connecting to your breath, you are able to root yourself in the here and now, rather than get swept up in the past or present. Simply put, when you slow your breath, you slow your train of thoughts. Why? The reason is because your brain cannot focus on what ifs and controlling your breath at the same time. Tuning into your breath can also help activate your parasympathetic nervous system (your “rest and digest” mode), which could temper the fight-or-flight response that triggered your anxiety in the first place.
Whenever you feel like you are spinning, try slowing and deepening your inhales, holding them in for a few seconds, then releasing the air with a deep exhale. Notice the sensation of your breath throughout your body—you should feel your belly rising and falling with each breath. This is a great and instant way to calm down fast so you can focus on taking a productive next step, whether that’s creating a to-do list, sending an important email, or asking your partner or coworker to take something off your hands.
When anxiety kicks in, your mind tends to move a mile a minute, and no thought is off-limits. That is why having a “rein-in-your-brain” strategy at the ready can help you come back to reality and avoid the downward spiral that anxiety often sets off. Anchoring statements are a technique I use with many of my clients who tend to think worst-case scenario.
The technique involves coming up with a simple, grounding script you can tell yourself whenever you notice those doomsday thoughts creeping in. For example, if you frequently find yourself overwhelmed at work and getting frazzled, say, “I always manage to get it all done.” If you are anxious about a date, or even flying, try: “I’ve done this many times before and I’m always OK.” Practicing your anchoring statements in nervous moments will help you feel grounded so you can get back to what is in front of you (be it a big project or getting ready for an event). Plus, overtime, using them can actually help prevent anxious feelings from taking hold in similar scenarios in the future. It is a win-win.
Sometimes no matter how much you wish it away, ignoring your anxiety just makes it come on stronger (You can start to have anxiety about not acknowledging your anxiety). Yet at the same time, letting your anxiety take over as often as it wants is not the greatest plan either, as that can leave you in a near-constant state of worry. That is why I like having what I call “worry time”- a dedicated block of time when you can let yourself go through your list of concerns and feel the weight of them. To do this well, create a list of things you feel need your attention, on a piece of paper or in a note on your smartphone. Then assign a time of day and choose a set duration (such as Sunday at 6 p.m., for 20 minutes) to go through each worry. Stop when you are supposed to (put an alarm on your phone you need to) and move on. Doing so helps you create boundaries around your anxiety so you don’t bring your worries into whatever you do next, helping you feel less stressed. It also helps you feel more in control so you can clear up some mental space to do that thing well.
Not all of these techniques will work for everyone, and not all will be easy on the first go. So try each a few times, for a few weeks, to see what works for you. If they all work then wonderful! The more tools you have at your disposal, the more equipped you will be for harnessing your anxiety for the better. And if one of these techniques do not work; Well, you are that much closer to understanding your anxiety — and turning it into an advantage.
Biography: Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, best known to audiences as Dr. Chloe, and author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety” (St. Martin’s Essentials, 2021). @DrChloe_