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3 Ways to Manage Anxiety: What’s Yours?

Everyone feels anxiety. The key is seeing it as a byproduct of being creative.

Key points

  • We all feel anxiety because anxiety is always about a future we can't control.
  • There are three primary ways of managing anxiety: avoid, bind, or approach, with the latter being the best.
  • The key is seeing anxiety as not a feeling to avoid or cut off but a byproduct of learning something new.
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Jack will admit that he’s an anxious guy. His motor is always running at too high a speed; he constantly worries about big and small things and always anticipates the worst. The only thing that seems to help him feel more calm are pot or alcohol.

If you ask Sara if she ever feels anxious, she says rarely. But if you step back and look at her lifestyle, it seems very routinized and rigid, doing the same much of the day. If you ask her partner, he would say that she can sometimes be controlling—quickly shooting down his ideas or micromanaging him when he isn’t doing what she expects.

Sanjay is starting his own company. Does he feel anxious? Sure. He doesn’t know whether it will be successful and is constantly faced with new challenges—staffing, financing, logistics. Still, Sanjay is able to move forward and sees these challenges as simply part of starting something new.

3 faces of anxiety.

While we can easily imagine our future, we can’t control it, hence the source of the anxiety we all feel and have to learn to manage somehow. Here, a simple model developed by therapists Mueller and Kell offers us three main ways to view our options:

  • Anxiety avoiders.

This is Jack. For anxiety avoiders, the feeling of anxiety is the problem they are constantly wrestling with, and their default way of coping is to avoid the situation or problem creating the anxiety or find ways to kill the feeling itself. If obsessing about an upcoming job interview, they decide to cancel it, rationalizing that they won’t get the job anyway. Rather than going to a party where they don’t know many people, they cancel at the last minute or, like Jack, drink heavily or smoke pot while there to stomp the feeling down. If they get an electric bill that they’re worried they can’t pay, they lay it on their bill pile rather than calling the company to find alternative ways to pay it and then go into crisis when their lights are turned off. Their anxiety and their attempts to avoid it run their lives.

  • Anxiety binders.

This is Sara. Unlike Jack, who constantly feels anxious, Sara doesn’t. Like other binders, she learned in childhood to manage anxiety by cutting it off before it arises through control, rigidity, and intellectualization. Their lives often follow tight, rigid routines. In relationships, they seem gentle but persistently controlling, keeping a sharp eye and tight rein on those around them to prevent them from wandering into potentially anxiety-producing situations. Even in conversations, they may change the subject or tune out what is being said if it could trigger some anxiety. They are not anxious because they never stray from their comfort zone and preemptively keep it at bay. Others often describe them as “heady” or unemotional.

  • Anxiety approachers.

Finally, we come to Sanjay: As the name suggests, people who are anxiety approachers can move ahead despite feeling anxious. Unlike Sara, they are aware of feeling anxious and are rigid or controlling. Like Jack, they feel anxiety but, unlike him, are not overwhelmed or intimidated by the feeling itself. An anxiety-approaching Jack prepares as best he can for the interview or decides to go to the party for at least a half hour and see if he can settle down, just as Sanjay will work out his worst-case scenario for the next quarterly budget.

Approachers have learned that anxiety is not something to avoid or cut off but is part and parcel of learning something new or solving a problem. Sanjay knows that once he learns how to work with an effective finance system or gets his core team in place, his anxiety will go down.

This ability to feel comfortable enough with feeling uncomfortable allows anxiety approachers to take acceptable risks, move out of their comfort zones, be creative, and grow; these are the Steve Jobs of the world. Learning to manage anxiety in this way is the key to building self-esteem and confidence.

How to shift gears.

Most of us have a primary mode and a secondary one: We can approach most of the time, but under stress, we become rigid; we feel anxious most of the time, but on a good day or when challenged or have enough support, we can take risks. The goal is to move from avoiding or binding to making anxiety approaching your default. Here are some suggestions:

  • Realize when you are falling into your default mode.

Jack realizes he’s turning down social events, or Sara is feeling stressed and more controlling—good to know. Pay attention to the signs that your anxiety is running you rather than you managing it.

  • Take small steps to step outside your comfort zone.

Like approachers, realize that anxiety is about learning something new or solving a problem, and you need to push through. Jack commits to going to the party for a half hour even though he doesn’t want to go because he realizes this is about learning new skills. Sara lets her husband plan their vacation, though she’s worried he will not do a good job because this is about being less rigid. The party or vacation is not about parties or vacations but about stepping outside your comfort zone, approaching rather than avoiding or binding anxiety.

  • Pat yourself on the back.

Anxious people can also be self-critical, feeling the need to do things right. Skip the right and focus more on what makes your life easier, more fulfilling, and more representative of who you are.

The goal isn’t about getting it right but taking the risk of going against your grain. The challenge is always taking the risk of changing what you do and trying out new behaviors, no matter how small a step.


Taibbi, R. (2017). Boot camp therapy: Action-oriented approaches to anxiety, anger, & depression. New York: Norton.

Mueller, W. & Kell, B. (1972). Coping with conflict. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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