A topic that fascinates me is how experts use their skills in their own lives. I love knowing what chefs cook their kids, etc. Since I've written a book on anxiety skills (The Anxiety Toolkit), I thought people might be interested in hearing about the anxiety management strategies I find myself using the most. As a quick backstory, I've always had an anxious nature. I still experience anxiety every day, and yet it doesn't cause problems for me. How does this make sense? Even though my anxiety is triggered frequently, it doesn't impair me in my life, and it doesn't excessively distress me. For example, I still have moments in which I get physical anxiety symptoms, but I trust my capacity to cope with those. I don't actually try to feel less anxiety. Instead, I try to minimize the extent to which anxiety leads to suboptimal decision making or lower performance (e.g., I don't care if I feel anxious before or during an interview, but I do care if anxiety impacts my capacity to be mindfully present during the experience and have a good conversation with the interviewer).
The following are some of the strategies I use that help me experience anxiety without being derailed by it. You might notice that the strategies I prefer also reflect other aspects of my personality, so there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Your job is to discover the strategies that suit your nature, like I've discovered the strategies that suit mine.
1. Embracing uncertainty
Let's say you could trade your used car into a dealer for a certain price of $4,000. If you sold it yourself, you'd probably get between $5,000-6,000 for it, but you wouldn't know how long it would take to sell or exactly that price you'd get for it. In this hypothetical, the dealer's offer is not going away. There is no risk of loss in this scenario in that you can always sell to the dealer, but by being willing to take on an uncertain situation, you open up the possibility that you'll do better.
People with anxiety generally hate uncertainty. They'll often tend to prefer more certain, but objectively worse, scenarios (like selling to the dealer) to less certain, but objectively better, scenarios.
I've found that the more I strategically embrace uncertainty and opt for better, uncertain options over worse, certain ones, the easier it gets, and the more my brain has begun to interpret uncertain situations as exciting rather than threatening.
2. Recognizing strengths that can arise from an anxious brain
This example relates to the idea of calculated risk-taking. Risk is a little bit different from uncertainty. Risk is a situation in which there is some actual chance of loss. For instance, an investment that could lose value. Over time, I've recognized that my anxious nature actually leads to some strengths when it comes to calculated risk-taking. Because I'm naturally anxious, I tend to think of everything that could go wrong. Knowing that my brain generates many ideas about what could go wrong actually gives me more confidence when it comes to risk-taking. I know if my instinct is to go for it when it comes to a particular opportunity, that instinct is usually right, since I've mentally factored in the risks. My bias tends to be being too cautious, so when my "go" light turns on, I know I can generally trust that signal.
When people are anxious by nature, that aspect of their nature interacts with their other traits. For instance, an anxious extrovert will be different from an anxious introvert. I've come to understand that even though I'm anxious, another aspect of my nature is that I enjoy calculated risk-taking. These traits don't seem like they would exist in the same person, but in fact, they can. I like to feel certain I've thought through everything that could go wrong and weighed it up, but once I have, I'm happy to make a calculated move.
3. Making small decisions more quickly
Being a worrywart is energy intensive. So that I can have the luxury of time to think through big decisions, I've learned to make small decisions more quickly. By small decisions, I mean things like small household purchases or whether to go away on vacation for five days or six days. I routinely use heuristics for many of these decisions, which lessens the cognitive burden. For instance, if I'm debating a trip that's slightly longer vs. slightly shorter, I always pick longer. To stop myself overthinking very small decisions, I value making any decision and getting it off my brain at $20 at least. This helps me stop spending too much time on household purchase decisions where the choice is between picking a likely acceptable option now or continuing to search for a potentially more ideal version.
4. Physical activity
I keep my priorities flexible. Realistically, not everything can be a top priority every day. Some days, my top priority is my child, some days it's my work, some days it's supporting a friend or other family member, and some days it's myself. Most days I manage to do some physical activity—usually a family walk and sometimes also the gym. Physical activity helps me cool down my anxiety system and think more clearly and more long-term. It allows me to take on projects that cause my anxiety system to ramp up, knowing I have a way to decompress that I enjoy and is effective.
Some of my favorite anxiety strategies are basic (like exercise), and some are the more nuanced, advanced type.
Part of being anxious by nature is that I'm ultra-sensitive to any vague hint of a potential "threat." Pretty much every day, something happens that makes me feel hurt, suspicious, insecure, self-doubting, or worried. To some extent, I try to see the funny side of how so many tiny things trigger worry or social anxiety for me. Because I know my natural bias is to internally overreact, I factor that in and under-react. I don't try to deny or completely stamp out my internal reactions, but I do generally allow some time and perspective before deciding if something that is bothering me requires any action, and what action to take. I often look for lower-key ways to react to things that are more in proportion to the objective events than my over-amped internal reaction.
Several of the examples in this post are from my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit.
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