Overcoming Anxiety

As an introvert, I often find myself getting nervous before going to a social event (personal or professional). For some reason, I tend to become too conscious of myself and how I am coming across, at least in the first few minutes of being at an event. Once I start talking to a couple of people, that feeling of anxiety melts away. I suspect I am not alone in having this feeling. Maybe it’s the voice of Resistance screwing with me. It can be easy to get anxious (even nerve-wracking) before talking to strangers at social events. Funnily enough, I don’t experience this anxiety when I am meeting with someone one on one, so I think for me this is more of a group thing.

Driving on Indian roads makes me anxious for many reasons. There is no lane driving and drivers cut each other off all the time. The worst are the two-wheelers (motorcycles and scooters), because if you hit them, no matter whose fault it is, you’ll be liable. By the way, riding in a taxi doesn’t make me less anxious sitting in the passenger seat. I also get anxious when I find myself driving or riding next to a truck carrying (kitchen) gas cylinders. I look for ways to stay away from it as far as possible. I find carrying these cylinders in a truck on a public road can be a public hazard; it’s way too risky because if something goes wrong (God forbid!), it will blow up and end up killing everyone around it. But most of the drivers or passengers don’t think twice about driving next to it (and implicitly assume the best).

Having clutter gives me anxiety. Clutter is simply the antithesis of organization. For instance, it’s okay for me to have unprocessed things as long as they are in the right place, because I can always process them later.

At the end of the day, I like to do a few things as part of my evening routine, which if not done would make me anxious. These things include reviewing the things I accomplished that day, filing away receipts, logging data (such as habits and exercise), writing in my journal, reviewing my upcoming list and schedule, and making a short list of things I would like to get done the following day. I prefer doing these things the night before as part of bringing closure to the day.

We experience anxiety for a variety of reasons. Perhaps someone is calling us on our phone incessantly without leaving a message, or maybe there’s an email in your inbox that you need to reply to, but you’ve been ignoring it for some reason. Maybe you have a huge pile of items in your Inbox tray at home, which you know if you begin to process, will take more time than you want to spend on it now. This is when you end up procrastinating. Other times, it could be your perfectionist nature that keeps you from making relevant progress.

Other examples include hoping to catch your flight (because you left late), making it quickly through the checkout line at the grocery store, or struggling through traffic so you can make it to your meeting on time.

Or it could be the fear of the unknown or uncertainty about things such as where do you find your next customer, client, or project. It could be a fear of future regret that can make you anxious now, or it could be a constant pressure (self-imposed) of making the perfect choice with every single thing, causing you stress about making the “wrong” decision.

Our anxiety can come from fear (of missing out), feeling a loss or absence of control, biting off more than we can chew, among other things. Or it can come from having too much stuff, not paying off your debts, having “multiple priorities”, social media, or even parenting.

In this day and age, it’s not uncommon for most people to experience anxiety given the stressful lives we lead. It’s easy to get frustrated when we try to do too much and can’t live to our colossal expectations (and/or that of others). We think with the advent of modern technology that we’ll be able to do more things, and while that’s true to some extent, we humans have our own limits, which we tend to ignore.

As David Kekich has rightly said:

Anxiety is usually caused by lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.

That said, some anxiety may be good for us because, without it, we wouldn’t be motivated to do anything. For instance, if you’re out in the woods and you see a bear, your anxiety might compel you to run as fast as you can, regardless of whether that is the best strategy in the scenario.

It’s worth noting the difference between normal, everyday anxiety and an anxiety disorder. The above examples are instances of normal everyday anxiety. Researcher Olivia Remes says anxiety becomes a disorder when we constantly worry about things in our lives all of the time, for instance. It’s as if we get comfortable with the feeling of worrying rather than doing something about it that it becomes second nature.

Anxiety disorders can often lead to depression and even suicide among other mental health illnesses. It is this constant feeling of worry and dread that something bad might happen that prevents you from living in the moment. We’re only looking at what’s wrong with our life rather than what’s right with it.

It goes without saying that if you have an anxiety disorder, you should consult a mental health expert. That said, here are some ideas for dealing with the anxiety we experience in day-to-day life:

Anxiety, fears, and worries often come from not getting what you want, which is mostly things outside of your control. As Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, has wisely said:

When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?

It’s ironic that we feel anxious about things outside of our control when we need to focus on things we can control (or change). The things you can’t control are outside your purview, so why worry about them? Accept them for what they are. For instance, you might be dwelling on things from your past, which you can no longer change, and which otherwise might be perceptions (not facts). You have to accept that there are some things you just can’t have or do. Figure out what you can do to change or influence things and let go of the rest.

Do your best (since that’s all you can do) and stop worrying about the results. When you focus on doing your best, there is no anxiety. Like I’ve said many times before, show up and do the work, and let the process determine the outcome for you. The only way to influence the outcome is the process, so focus on that.

For instance, if you’re late in catching your flight, accept it. No amount of worrying is going to change anything. Rather than expend your energy on worrying, focus on what you can do to still make it on time or, alternatively, catch the next flight. The point is rather than worry about things you can’t change, why not accept it and move on. Similarly, there is no way for us to change the weather, but it is still a part of minutiae in our everyday lives.

Anxiety is a choice you make. There are often times we get anxious regarding other people. We tend to make their problems our own. For example, if we don’t answer their phone call, they might call us back again a few times until we answer. You can either feel anxious and pick up the phone or you can ignore it for the time being (for any number of reasons), but return their call at your own convenience (if warranted). You decide if you want to be anxious and make the problems of other people your own. Besides, so-called “urgencies” of other people are not necessarily your urgencies.

Reframe the way you talk to yourself about things. For instance, when I am about to go to a social event, I could convert my nervousness into gratitude by telling myself that I am going to meet some interesting people and it’s going to be great. Besides, it’s hard to feel anxious when you’re grateful; it’s just positive psychology. How you talk to yourself determines how you think and feel. Stop getting carried away by emotion and use reason to question it.

Your worries can often cause you to feel afraid about things. Ask yourself, what are you really afraid of regarding that thing you’ve been worrying about. Are you afraid of making a decision? Ask yourself what is actually making you anxious about that thing.Follow your fears to find the source of your anxiety.

What I wrote in my draft on managing emotions:

We need to manage our emotions rather than be managed by them. It’s always our choice, and we should not be affected by how others respond to us. We should always be the ones in control, and not let our emotions get the better of us.

If you find yourself in the heat of the moment, if you can, take 3-6 slow, deep breaths to instantly change your state (how you feel), but easier said than done in that situation.

One reason we feel anxious is a feeling of loss of control; the feeling that we are not in control of our lives. This is what I wrote in my draft on Inbox:

It is difficult to walk around storing everything in your head hoping it will work out. In reality, it won’t. You’ll end up losing things, you’ll feel more frustrated, and, at some point, you will simply stop caring.

Pay attention to things that have your attention; you have things on your mind for a reason. The more you keep thinking about things, the less you’re doing something about them. Surprisingly, you don’t have to do things to get them off your mind, you just have to decide what those things mean for you and finish your thinking about them. Learning to manage your inventory of commitments (to yourself and to others) can be a game changer.

Another reason we get anxious is when we try to do it all. We can either do a few things well or many things poorly. We forget that when we say yes to one thing, we are implicitly saying no to other things. For instance, when we decide to prioritize the one thing we need to get done today, it comes at the opportunity cost of not doing other things (and that’s okay). That’s just the nature of it. Accept it and move on. You can’t do it all. Instead of worrying or stressing about things that won’t get done today, use your energy to do the few things you can finish (and celebrate that).

We think about the future much more than we think about past and present. Focus on being in the present moment since that is all you have. Take some time every day to listen to yourself. Slow the heck down. Come back to the fundamentals — eat, move, sleep. Spend some time in solitude every day. If you prefer journaling, then consider writing 500 words every morning. It will help you in more ways than you can imagine.

Having phones on us all of the time can be a source of constant anxiety and stress. Ironically, these devices are meant to serve us, not to stress us out. It’s ultimately up to us to improve our relationship with technology — for our sake and for those we care about.

Focus on making progress rather than getting hung up on perfection. Give yourself the permission to be truly divergent. When you’re 80% ready, move. No one cares about the final 20%.

Detach yourself from things that don’t add value to your life. You’ll feel calmer, freer, and lighter that way.

Forgive yourself for the mistakes you have made in the past (and move on). Now, it’s easy to think about what’s wrong with your life, but that won’t help your cause. On the contrary, being grateful for things in one’s life can go a long way in being calm, less anxious, and more in control.

Above all, have a purpose and meaning in life. Have something to live for. Most of us find this meaning and satisfaction in our work. That will also help you say no to other things. As Remes says, do work now that might benefit future generations even if those people never realize and/or acknowledge your contribution, because that doesn’t matter. What matters, however, is that doing this will make you realize the importance and uniqueness of your own life. This is a great reminder for me to keep doing the work I’ve been doing and knowing if others benefit along the way, then even better.

It’s easy to get anxious about things if left unchecked. If you go looking for anxiety, you’ll most certainly find it. The problem is never out there, so to speak. Let’s focus on things we can change, control, or influence, rather than worry about things outside of our control. How you talk to yourself informs a great deal of how you think and feel. While some amount of anxiety is healthy and useful, the vast majority of it is not. Anxiety is ultimately a choice we make.

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