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3 Ways to Deal with In-the-Moment Anxiety

These techniques can help you feel more confident in a stressful situation.

You may have prepared for a stressful situation such as a job interview, an important meeting, or a presentation. But you're still likely to have some anxiety while you're in the situation. That's normal! Here are some things you can try.

Rate your anxiety and watch it ebb and flow. Anxiety is not an all–or–nothing condition; it exists on a continuum. When you're feeling anxious, rate your anxiety on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being completely calm and 10 being a state of severe anxiety. For example, say to yourself, “Oh, I'm at a 7 now. I think I'll take a few deep breaths and see what happens to my anxiety level.” After taking a few minutes to focus on your breathing, reassess your level. You'll likely find that your anxiety has decreased, even if only by a point or 2. Realizing that your anxiety level doesn't remain constant can reassure you that you won't remain in a high–anxiety state forever. Approach this task with an attitude of curiosity. Say to yourself, “I wonder what will happen to my anxiety level if I do this…”

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Notice and describe concrete objects around you. Another trick you can try if you're having trouble maintaining your calm is to silently describe simple objects in your environment. For example, talk to yourself about the carpet: “This carpet has a low pile, it's tweedy looking, with mauve and blue in it.  It goes nicely with the cream-colored walls…” Sometimes it can help to make physical contact with an object. Touch the table you're sitting at, for example, or the material of the chair cushion beneath you.

What does this accomplish? Remember that anxiety is typically future–oriented, concerned with all the catastrophes that might happen. By describing your surroundings, you ground yourself in the present, preventing your anxiety from escalating any further. Before long, you're not noticing your racing heart or your trembling hands quite as much. Once you've settled down a bit, you can then redirect your attention to what you're supposed to be doing.

Focus on other people. Although it may seem like you're the only one who gets anxious, in reality, there are many others who share your concerns. That means if you're in some type of gathering, perhaps a meeting for example, chances are there will be other people around you who are uncomfortable.

One client I worked with did an experiment of sorts. She hated the monthly department meeting at work that she was required to attend. She believed she was the quietest one there, and that people must think she was a “scared little mouse”. At one meeting, she decided to keep track of how many times people spoke. She actually made tally marks on a pad of paper, discreetly of course. To her surprise, she learned that she wasn't the most quiet. In fact, she discovered that there were several people who said absolutely nothing. My client learned that while she wasn't the most outspoken of the group, she certainly wasn't the quietest either. By taking the focus off of herself and instead noticing other people, she was able to shift gears and relax.

Why not try your own experiments? Be creative. Notice who tells the most jokes, who tries to placate the group, and who tries to stir up trouble. Again, this will keep your focus off yourself and your anxiety.

I’m not going to make any false promises. These techniques aren’t meant to take away your anxiety completely; that would be unrealistic. But, having a few concrete things to try while in a tough situation may help you feel more confident, and that is a realistic goal to set.

Here are some other stress reduction tips to try.

photo credit Alan Cleaver via flickr CC

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Dr. Barbara Markway, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with over twenty years of experience. She is the author of four popular psychology books and has been featured in media nationwide.

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