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Anxiety

4 Questions to Ask Yourself When You're Anxious

Help yourself feel greater clarity and calm when you're stressed.

Key points

  • When facing uncertainty, we tend to get anxious and may find it hard to think clearly.
  • It's important to acknowledge that there is often more than one good decision that we could make.
  • Checking in with our feelings and allowing ourselves to take breaks can help calm us down.
Vladislav Babienko/Unsplash
Source: Vladislav Babienko/Unsplash

During times when you feel highly anxious, you may have a sense that it's hard to think clearly. Try asking yourself these four questions to feel clearer, calmer, and less gripped by rumination.

1. Is there more than one good decision here?

When people are anxious, they typically obsess about what the "right" decision is. When people do this, they often overlook that there is more than one good decision available. Many times we are not choosing between a right and a wrong decision or way to proceed. Instead, we're choosing between multiple good decisions. Try to recognize when that is the case to take the pressure off.

For example:

  • Perhaps you're considering whether you should decide now or wait 24 hours to decide. Both of these options could be good decisions.
  • You're deciding whether to take a gap year or go straight to college. Both could be good decisions.
  • You're deciding whether to have another baby or not. Again, both could be good decisions.
  • Should you go on a second date or not?
  • Should you raise a grievance that's been bothering you, or not do that now? Since you can't predict the outcome of either course of action, both are potentially good decisions, and perhaps neither would constitute a terribly bad decision.

2. If what I'm worried about turns out fine, how will I wish I had handled it?

Let's say you're incredibly anxious about a health concern, passing an exam, your child's development, or an issue at work. If in a week, a month, or a year, your worry turns out to be no big deal, how would you wish you had handled yourself while you were experiencing the uncertainty?

Asking yourself this question can help you stay engaged with what's valuable and important to you, even when you're feeling anxious about an uncertain situation. If the situation turns out fine, you're probably going to wish you hadn't become all consumed with worry and ignored everything else that's important to you. For example, if a situation turns out to be no big deal, you'd probably regret it if it caused you to disengage with your loved ones and your friends or resulted in you gaining 20 lbs from overeating.

You can also optionally add the reverse question: "If the situation I'm worried about turns out to be serious or bad, how will I wish I had handled myself during the period in which the outcome or seriousness was unclear?" What's the overlap between your answers? For example, I would probably answer that in both scenarios, I would hope that I kept my bond with my child strong, that I kept exercising, and that I kept trying to produce valuable creative work.

Your answers to these questions can help provide you with a clear compass to follow when you're facing uncertainty you can't immediately resolve.

3. Is my anxiety affecting my decision-making in any negative way?

Many anxious people worry that their anxiety is harming them. However, sometimes the harms people worry about aren't what's most important. For example, you may worry that your physical anxiety is negatively affecting your body.

In my mind, the main mechanism that can cause anxiety to have a negative impact on someone's life is if it results in avoidant coping. For example, you delay seeing a doctor for a health symptom due to anxiety or second-guessing yourself. Or you delay getting a second opinion because you don't want to offend your primary doctor.

Personally, I'm not particularly concerned with reducing my felt experience of anxiety. However, I am concerned with any ways that feeling anxious could make me less proactive and less resourceful in solving problems than I would otherwise be. I would also hope that feeling anxious wouldn't prevent me from speaking up when something seems unjust, unfair, unnecessary, or otherwise wrong. Those are the impacts of anxiety I seek to minimize, not feelings or sensations of anxiety.

4. Is there any harm in allowing myself to take a break from my anxiety? Is there any benefit?

Anxiety can tend to grip us. From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety has evolved to focus our attention on a potential threat in ways that make it difficult to distract ourselves or stop thinking about the risk. Consider this example: If you think you've seen a bear, it's probably not advantageous to be able to easily switch to thinking about something more pleasant and forget about the threat.

If you're not facing off against a bear, in many other situations, temporary distraction can help your well-being and decision-making. For example, I have a pregnancy scan tomorrow. I'm anxious about it. However, the best course of action today isn't to obsess about what it might show. The best course of action today is to engage with other things that are important to me and react to whatever the results are tomorrow. There's no mentally preparing or running through scenarios today that's helpful beyond what I've already done.

Sometimes, the idea of taking a whole day off from overthinking about the source or topic of your anxiety will sound too much or too hard. You can try any other option. For example, I will sometimes say, "I'm going to play a game of solitaire on my phone, and allow myself to take a break from thinking about my anxiety for those 2-5 minutes." Or, "I'm going to make a batch of muffins with my kid and take a break from my anxiety for that hour."

Taking a very short break from your anxiety will often allow you to feel safe and capable enough to take a longer break.

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Next time you're anxious, re-scan this article to see if any of the questions here feel applicable to the situation. Give answering them a try and see if they help you. It's not most important whether they lessen your feelings or physical sensations of anxiety, but rather whether they help you sense the way you're handling the situation is more aligned with your values and strengths.

What's your gut instinct now about which of these four questions might be most helpful to you?

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