Anxiety- even the name feels unpleasant to me.  This feeling of dread, of stress, is a common problem, effecting approximately 10% of the United States adult population.[1]  The intensity of these feelings can be overpowering and debilitating to many people.  Anxiety seizes hold, and grips you strongly and you feel overwhelmed by the stress it creates.  With the power of these emotions, many are left with a sense that they are trapped forever in their dread.  

Fortunately, this does not have to be the case.  There are ways to bring anxiety down, to take control back of your life, and move forward with a feeling of more control.  To be honest, you would be best served to find a good psychiatrist for anti-anxiety medications and a good counselor to go through cognitive-behavioral therapy with you.  These have the best outcome.  But, in my own clinical experience, many people with anxiety have problems even reaching out to professionals.  So, if you cannot get past your anxiety enough to reach out to a professional, this article is for you.  If you have some anxiety but not enough that you feel like paying for professional help is worth the cost, the article is for you as well.  We will explore some self-help tips on how to manage your anxiety.  

Note that this is not therapeutic advice, and does not take the place of a work with a counselor and psychiatrist.  You should seek professional advice.

Tip #1: Examine your internal dialogue

All of us have some form of internal dialogue, or mental scripts we run through.  When we see or do something, we mentally talk to ourselves.  When we get an accolade, or think about something, we talk to ourselves.  This internal dialogue can be on of your biggest tools to combat anxiety, or one of your biggest weaknesses that gives your anxiety a foothold.

In the world of psychology we identify these internal dialogues that harm us as unhelpful or irrational thoughts.  There are some very common one, and they fuel our anxiety.  Some examples are:

  • Catastrophizing: every problem is a HUGE DEAL!  The weight of every problem is given more weight than the problem probably deserves.  This is more casually known as making mountains out of mole hills.
  • Discounting Positives: You get a compliment? Probably don't really know you well enough.  Complete a really hard project early?  You probably screwed it up.  These sort of thoughts keep us from truly experiencing positive things in life because you write them off.
  • Perfectionism: You cannot fail, and have to be an expert at everything if you are to be considered worthwhile! Truly, a harmful thought that is impossible to measure up to.
  • Universal Love: You have to be loved by everyone, otherwise there is something wrong.  This unattainable standard creates a huge barrier to ever reaching any satisfaciton.
  • Your Problem is Someone Else: That guy, if he would just stop doing that thing, then you would be happy.  Alternatively it can be your happiness depends on someone else, such as a romantic relationship.
  • Avoidance: It is easier to avoid people and problems than solve them.  Problem is, avoiding tends to just lead to more problems.
  • Historicism: Your history dictates your future.  This makes you perpetually trapped, with no way out, all because you look back not forward.

There have been more identified, but these are good summary and fit many people with anxiety.  I challenge you to examine your thoughts and see if you can pick up on any of these.  If you do, begin challenging these thought patterns.  For example, if you find you are falling into the "Universal Love" thought pattern, remind yourself that you don't care to be loved by Adolf Hitler, nor that jerk who will not shut up in the theater, a there's probably more.  Love is given in deep relationship, and you cannot attain it from everybody.  Then remind you who does care for you.  These are methods to challenge your thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

Tip #2: Eat the Elephant a Bite at a Time

Your anxiety is usually overwhelming.  There is little or nothing you can do to stop it, or so you think.  If you are in a particularly bad place, going any farther than your mailbox may be debilitating.  You go to the grocery stores only when there is nothing left to eat, at all.  Or perhaps because of your anxiety have not called someone in 3 years.  Whatever it is, feeling like you can live a "normal life" feels overwhelming to get out from where you are.

Perhaps you are right, it is to much to ask of you.

But what if we did something minor.  How about tomorrow when you get the mail you stay outside by the mailbox for 5 minutes?  Then the next day do it for 10 minutes.  A week later cross the street.  You don't have to stay there, but cross it, then cross back.  Work your way up.  An elephant is eaten a bite at a time, and you can take your life back a piece of a time. 

The key to doing this is to set achievable goals that are short but just a tad uncomfortable.  Don't get convinced you have to go for a two mile walk tomorrow if you cannot make it out the door.  Just set up a series of small goals that you can do, and go for it.

Seem to much?  Worried you'll give up?  Well that leads me to...

Tip #3: Get Support

I have already mentioned counseling, and that would be best.  But if you either cannot afford it or you cannot work yourself up for it there is other forms of support.  Go on Facebook and tell a couple of friends your plan.  Ask a friend or family member to support you.  Find someone who will support you.  Tell this person your plan.  Tell them you are going to attack this problem, but need a cheerleader.

That can be one of the deepest traps of anxiety, that you lose help and support.  The isolation that anxiety can put you in pulls you out of that natural support we all need.  So you need to rebuild that, even if it is only with one person.  This may be your first step of #2, and you may need to do some serious thought challenging per #1 to do this, but you need the support.  Crazy thing is, people want to support you.  You may not realize it, but people really do care about you and want to help.  They do not seem to be helping, though, because people are afraid of being "pushy" or "busybodies" and since you isolate, they assume you want privacy.  This is a misunderstanding of the debilitating nature of anxiety, but they do not know that.  So take the effort to reach out.

Notice above I gave you an out from calling someone.  Online support can work.  In doing some research for my blog for parents I found some interesting data indicating that online support groups help in a notable way.  There is even some interesting data on how professionals may not be necessary to be effective.  So you don't have the excuse, you can get on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr and ask for help from a friend.

Be clear with them what you need.  If you are not clear enough yourself, here is what you need:  You need someone who will tell you what a good job you are doing.  Who will encourage you in your journey.  You also need someone who will ask you if you are moving forward with your plan, and will question you if you offer excuses.  You do need them to be understanding and gentle, after all you do not want interaction with your support to trigger your anxiety. But give them permission to also be firm in their gentleness.  

Actually, that leads me to the next step...

Tip #4: Be Forgiving of Yourself

This could probably be included in Tip #1, but deserves deliberate exploration on its own.  Anxiety is often simply a voice in your head, that sounds like your own, telling you that you have screwed up, you will always screw up, and that there is no hope for you.  As I said with #1, you need to recognize this as irrational.  However, you also need to forgive yourself.  You do screw up, because we all do.  But it is okay, because we are not perfect, no one is.

So take the time to forgive yourself.  You probably have a detailed list of failures tucked away somewhere in your head.  You need to know that those are not you.  Forgiveness means acknowledging the bad, then letting go of the feelings attached to the bad.  Many of us are good at this for others, but you need to be able to do it for yourself.

Frankly, you probably already know this on an intellectual level, but there is a core value there you need to own.  Think of it this way: do you want to be an unforgiving person?  You know, those people who hold grudges their whole life because in 11th grade Susie flirted with their boyfriend?  Or what about that time John forgot to send you a Christmas card?  Well I'll never let them live that down!  Does that sound like something you want?  Well if you are not able to forgive yourself, then you are that person.

I will add that I think some feelings of remorse and shame for wrong doing is healthy.  Those are feelings are correctional, they tell us wrong has been done and needs to be corrected.  They become motivators for reform.  However, outside of that, they are useless baggage and should be discarded as such after you have been corrected.  

So be forgiving, especially of yourself.  If you fail one of your goals from #2 today, forgive yourself.  It's okay, you can work on it tomorrow.  Do not hate yourself for being caught, forgive yourself.  That small voice condeming you for being you is a liar, let it be known, and forgive yourself.  Move forward, understanding that you will fall back, it is inevitable.  Forgive yourself for falling, and move forward.

Tip #5: Never Give Up Hope

This spills out of the last one.  "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire filled is a tree of life."[2]  In your forgive yourself, you can cling to hope.  You can move forward.  You will fail, but do not give up hope.  Hope leads to so many things.  In his excellent book Man's Search Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes that, "Life is never made unbearable by circumstances but rather by a lack of meaning and purpose."[3]  I would venture he would know what he talking about, as he was a survivor of the infamous Auschwtiz concentration camp during the Holocaust.

What both the quotes above are referencing about how hope is a key part of life.  Meaning and purpose give us reasons to go on.  It can feel powerless and hopeless when trapped in anxiety, but do not let that be.  Find something, anything to have hope.  If only you are still breathing.  Even a small piece of hope will give you the oomph to make it one more day.  Each day at a time, find your hope.  Take purpose in what you do, find meaning in your day.

Your values will dictate where you find hope.  If you are religious, religion holds much comfort and hope.  If you have family, take meaning in that.  If you have a hobby, and talent, a mild interest, cling to it and your hope.  Take meaning out of your job, even if it feels meaningless.  It matters to someone, otherwise they would not pay you to do it.  Find meaning, take hold.  It will make the rest doable.

I want to leave you with this: get help if you can.  A good counselor can make all the difference.  This is not therapeutic advice, it will not have the impact that true therapeutic assistance will provide.  If you cannot do it, maybe these tips will help.  But no one should be left stuck in their own misery.  You are not alone and there is help available.