Have You Ever Struggled to Apply Anxiety Tips?

Books and articles about anxiety sometimes leave out this essential information.

Posted Jun 13, 2019

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Have you ever found yourself in this scenario? You're following along with some instructions (e.g., a recipe or assembling something). However, you strike a problem or reach a point you're really confused. You eventually figure it out, and once you do, you realize some key hint or critical piece of information was left out of the explanation. You think "Geez it would've been extremely helpful to know that, and would've saved me a bunch of flailing around and feeling confused/stupid."

When I'm explaining concepts, I always try to mention as many of these commonly missing elements as I can, but I think it's worth trying to do that even more. If you like reading self-help info on anxiety, here are some hints and clarifications that are frequently missing from "instructions/recipes."

1. It can take a really long time to get around to implementing even simple tips.

When you read about a tip or strategy and think "oh, that's so true" or  "oh, I should do that" you're not likely to run around implementing it in every aspect of your life straight away.

There are still ways I haven't finished implementing my own advice in my own life!  Sometimes I'll have a reason to flick back through the books I've written (e.g., when I want to remind myself of a reference I cited or something like that), and when I do  I often come across a tip and I recognize that I'm not applying that tip in a situation I'm currently facing and that it would be helpful to do so. My conversations with colleagues suggest I'm not the only one this happens to!

People have a lot going on in their lives and when you're making changes in your thinking and behavior, you also need to be getting normal things done. All of this requires mental and emotional energy. It can take some time to work up to making changes, and sometimes it's a matter of when you've got the psychological reserves in your tank to do it.

Try:

  • When you come across resources that impact you (e.g., books, videos, articles) and equip you with good strategies, return to resources after a period of time. When you do, you'll see new ways to apply the principles to whatever you've currently got going on in your life. 
  • Also, cut yourself some slack if you feel like the proverbial tortoise when it comes to implementing good strategies. It probably indicates you're someone who needs time and mental space to plan, execute, and recover from change. The more you implement strategies in small ways, the more you'll remember to keep doing so. Do what you can.

2. You don't need to be constantly pushing yourself.

If you've ever read a book on success or anxiety, you might come away with the impression that successful people are constantly driving themselves hard, that they're constantly living outside their comfort zone.

If you're anxious by nature, it's ok to cycle between being brave and retreating to recover.  It's easy to think you should always be throwing yourself into anxiety-provoking circumstances e.g., seeking feedback, or putting yourself out there emotionally. It's easy to think always pushing towards being brave in the face of anxiety is the ideal.  It's not. Everyone needs recovery, so you'll oscillate between explore and retreat. Once you're accepting of it, it can be quite enjoyable to mindfully pay attention to the ways you naturally cycle between explore, retreat, explore, retreat. Try finding your natural rhythm of this. Also, notice the types of scenarios, circumstances, and people that make being brave easier for you.

Try:

  • This might sound a bit odd but sometimes I think of myself as being visited by bravery. It's like a braveness fairy comes and briefly sprinkles temporary braveness dust over me, and I get the urge to try something that in many other moods I'd shrink away from. When those moments strike, leap. Put aside whatever else was on your to-do list and do whatever thing that usually feels too intimidating, suddenly feels doable. Now, an image of a braveness fairy might seem completely ridiculous to you and not at all compelling. This brings me to my next point  - my personal version of a strategy (or any other expert's) won't be your version.

3. Your best strategies will be those you craft "to taste."

Coming back to the analogy of a recipe - when you make a recipe, you might follow it to the letter the first time you make it. However, when you make that recipe often, you'll probably tweak it. You might want a little more or less spice or salt, or to change the ratio of the sauce to the vegetables, or whatever. The version of it you like best probably won't be the same as the original version. Also, you might have an ideal way you make the dish, but also have a repertoire of acceptable substitutes you can make to ingredients, based on what you have on hand or how much time/energy you happen to have that day.

This is the way psychological strategies work too. You can learn about a recommended strategy (even one as seemingly basic about slow breathing) but if it's going to truly become one of your go-to skills, you'll incorporate it into your life in a way that's very personal to you. You'll do your own version of it, and you'll have your own set of conditions under which you deploy it.  

Try:

  • Think about an anxiety strategy you already use and the way you've made it your own. Whenever you read about a strategy that appeals to you, tweak it to your taste, so that you feel more ownership of it and it's more relevant to your personality and your life, and more achievable with the time and willpower you typically have on hand. To give you the idea, here and here are articles where I talk about how I've personalized certain anxiety management strategies for my own use.