Stressed, anyone? Anxious?
The answer to these questions is that a lot of us feel these ways, and too many of us feel these ways a lot of the time. Stress and anxiety, like fear, are natural responses to a sense of threat in the world. These feelings can motivate us to do things we need to do, and otherwise mightn’t. But, experienced over prolonged periods of time, they become more problematic, both physiologically and psychologically.
When we are anxious, two things tend to happen, in terms of how we think about the world. What are these?
First, we become inclined to overestimate the extent of the threats or challenges we face. A big part of this is feeling like we’re losing a sense of boundaries, and of control of what’s important.
Second, we tend to underestimate our resources and capacities to meet the challenges. Too much is happening, too fast, and we don’t have enough time or energy to deal with all of it!
Adding 1 and 2 together, you can see that anxiety can quickly serve to make people feel less able to address the problems that are causing the stress, and more prone to avoidance and despondency—even feeling if their life is spiralling out of control.
How can we reduce anxiety, then, before this vicious cycle gathers too much momentum? Here’s two tips:
- Divide what we can control right now, from what we cannot. Maybe many bad things could happen in the future, if we don’t perform as well as we wanted to. Maybe. But that is in the future. Who knows, then? Right now, we can only do what we can: and that will give us the best chance of success, moving forwards. As for the rest, regrets about the past and worries about possible futures, it is good to learn techniques to identify and let these thought patterns go, so we can redirect our problem-solving energies to things we might be able to do now.
- Given that anxiety leads us to overestimate the threats we face—it’s all too much!—it is a good thing to identify and list all of the different things that are stressing us out. Get them right out there, even on paper if this helps.
- Externalising the lot of them, putting them on paper, allows us to look at the worries we’ve been carrying around inside ourselves as, well, outside ourselves. We get some distance, and can go from being flooded by them all in our own heads, to being able to break down the problems, one by one, with somebody else. Often, also, the big problems which are stressing us out—it’s impossible, too much, where could I even start?—are each just a lot of little problems in a sequence or a bundle. Yet, each of these little problems, taken by itself, we can easily enough handle—and that’s an important, potentially empowering insight.
For once we’ve got the things “on our mind” all out there in front of us, we can start to map out a schedule for addressing their moving parts, not all at once—it’s too much! But one by one—OK, I’ve got this. All of a sudden, what seemed overwhelming in our heads, a gigantic mountain, starts to assume manageable dimensions—the mountain is just a sequence of molehills. And, from feeling powerless and overwhelmed, we’ve started to take a bit of the power back from our anxiety.