AND THREE WAYS TO FIGHT BACK
Anxiety is a part of life. Normally an infrequent and mildly unpleasant part… sort of like that college roommate from years gone by who unexpectedly shows up at your door, then camps out in your living room for a night. Unexpected, uninvited, slightly inconvenient, but tolerable. We can all live with that type of anxiety. It doesn’t have a big impact, it is brief, and we maintain a sense of control.
Sometimes, however, anxiety is more like a bill collector. Persistent, intrusive, ill mannered, and capable of casting a dark shadow over your day to day life.
The troubling thing is, we are not always aware of when anxiety has transformed itself from unexpected guest status, to bill collector status. That is because anxiety can slowly eat into our daily mood and outlook. When this happens, we may hardly notice that our life is slowly becoming trapped by fears (sometimes very ill formed or vague) that lurk in the back of our minds.
Below are three signs to look for if you are concerned that this may be happening to you.
ONE Changes in routine. You begin to change your daily routine due to your anxiety. For example, you may start to sleep in a little later (to avoid starting the day and facing the things that make you anxious). Alternatively, you may become less engaged with friends or family because you are preoccupied with those things that make you anxious. Or, perhaps you start to stay later at work, not because there are a greater number of tasks needing your attention, but because you start to obsess more about the need to do things perfectly.
TWO Changes in your overall sense of happiness. Another sign that anxiety is beginning to take over your life is when your level of happiness begins to drop. This frequently occurs so subtly that it may be months before a person realizes that life is simply not as full as it had been a short while before. Chronic low levels of anxiety slowly drain the joy from life. In fact, chronic anxiety frequently leads to depression.
THREE Changes in coping strategies. When you notice yourself more often needing to rely on certain coping strategies, you should stop and consider whether anxiety has established a beachhead somewhere in your life. Examples of these coping strategies include having two or three glasses of wine each evening rather than the occasional one glass. Or spending an hour ‘surfing the internet’ each evening rather than the usual 15 minutes. Another example, easily mistaken for an increased emphasis on health, is the person who goes from taking a three-mile run each morning to a five or six-mile run (not because he/she is getting ready for a competition, but simply because the three-mile run no longer brings a sense of peace/satisfaction).
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
It would probably not be helpful were I to say, in my grandfather's native tongue (Swedish) “Det är ingen ko på isen.” The literal translation of this idiom is "There is no cow on the ice." (I find that strangely reassuring). In the U.S. we would simply say "Not to worry, everything is fine."
Sometimes such reassurance is sufficient, but when anxiety has started to take root you need more than bromides regarding the absence of bovine on ice. Below are three steps you can take to fight back against anxiety if it frequently intrudes on your life.
FIRST Identify the source of anxiety, and if possible meet it head on. Is anxiety due to a deteriorating relationship? Begin to work on repairing the relationship, and prepare for what life might be like if the it cannot be repaired. Is anxiety due to an overwhelming work schedule? Take a Saturday off to be by yourself and consider ways to reduce your workload, or strategize on how to change jobs if necessary.
SECOND Engage in healthy lifestyle changes that reduce stress. For example, make sure you are getting enough sleep. If you are not exercising begin to do so. Or you might try meditating for 20 minutes a day (simple meditation, no need to cross your legs, chant, or burn incense). Also, think about doing a review of your week and make certain that you are engaging in activities that have provided a sense of stability and happiness in the past (e.g., quality time with family/friends, attending church, engaging in hobbies, etc.).
THREE Learn simple coping strategies. The most common of these is learning to take deep/slow breaths when feeling anxious (and visualizing a peaceful scene while doing so). Reminding yourself of past times when you faced anxious situations and prevailed. When you feel anxiety starting to rise up think about taking a five-minute break from whatever you are doing and step outside (sunlight has a positive impact on mood). Of course, if you are in the middle of a business meeting, performing surgery, flying an aircraft, or something similar, this last suggestion should be put on hold.
Again, anxiety is simply a part of life, but it shouldn't be (and need not be) a frequent part of life. There are many more ways to fight back against anxiety than those listed above. If you would like more tips on how to make anxiety an infrequent guest in your life (and honestly, who wants anxiety as a roommate?), take a look at some of the resources on my "Essential Tools" page.
Hope this helps, and write me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.