5 steps to manage anxiety and overcome overwhelm

A friend told me they have a meltdown every 3 hours since the pandemic started. If you’re like us, you’re not having a panic attack 24/7. One minute you’re fine. The next, not so much. For some of us it may feel like we’re in a perpetual state of anxiety, but the reality is that feelings are always changing. 

Now is the perfect time to take inventory of your emotional experience so you can keep crushing life during the pandemic. In this post we discuss where anxiety comes from and what to do when we feel it, but keep in mind that these same ideas and techniques can be applied to managing any emotion. For me, I’m feeling all the feels. Sometimes all at once and sometimes one after the other. Relaxed. Anxious. Panicked. Busy. Depressed. Nostalgic. Happy. Calm. Sad. Resigned. 

It’s easy to understand why it seems like we’re just along for the ride on our emotional rollercoasters. When we’re ready to get off the ride and get back into the driver’s seat we have to ask: 

How do we regain some semblance of control over overwhelming emotions? 

You could be eager to rush to the finish line of peace, tranquility, and emotional mastery, but your hurry might actually slow you down. To understand our anxiety and effectively manage it we start at the beginning with awareness. We have to understand where emotions are coming from and it’s not where you might think.

Our anxiety spikes when we watch the news or hear a friend talk about the pandemic. Or maybe we’re thinking to ourselves about how we’re going to make money and all the sudden we panic. We go from zero to a hundred in a second. We wonder how in the world it happened so fast when we look back at the aftermath of our emotional chaos.

It’s understandable if we associate the news or our alarmist friends with our anxiety. While there may be a very real, very valid connection there, we give away our power when we believe that the news, our friends, or anything outside of ourselves dictates how we feel. It’s quite uncomfortable to believe the world around you controls your emotions. Let me assure you though – you’re much more formidable than that.

Here’s how it really works. Some sort of trigger flies out at you, let’s say a news headline that reads, “Coronavirus Cases Climb Over One Gillion in the US.”  In that half a second before you lose your shit and start drinking all the expensive alcohol you’ve been saving for a special occasion, something else happens: you have a thought about what you read. Now remember, a thought is just a sentence in your head. In this case, it’s probably something dramatic like, “THE END IS NEAR. If I’m gonna die soon I’m going out BIG!”

We know that we read the headline and became anxious. Most of us stop there and blame the headline for the feeling. Here’s the thing though, triggers do NOT create emotions. There is space between external triggers and internal human reactions. Sometimes it’s only a split second. Often it’s imperceivable. You have to slow down to see it, but if you look, it’s there. In a future post, I’ll share more about identifying thoughts that arise in the space between triggers and emotions. For now though, let’s take our power back by accepting that our thoughts create our emotional experience

As crazy as it may sound at first, we can tie each feeling we experience back to a thought.

Tap, tap. Is this thing on? 

Did y’all hear that? 

The pandemic isn’t making your anxiety go through the roof.

Your thoughts about the pandemic, THAT is where your anxiety is coming from.

All of your personal strength becomes accessible when you realize that your thoughts create your feelings. We’re almost to our 5 steps to manage anxiety. Here’s one more quick preface to give you full context.

You are in control of where you direct your attention. 

You can’t control how many people around the world get infected, what the media says, or even what your best friend says. You can control how you react. That means managing your emotional reactions to triggers.

When you resist an emotion it tends to stay around longer and even intensify. When you acknowledge what you’re feeling by naming it, an emotion can evolve into whatever feeling comes next. It’s simple really. If you wait for it, the feeling will change. If you’re not paying attention you won’t notice the feeling changing. Unfortunately we’re so unfamiliar with letting ourselves feel so-called “negative” emotions like anxiety that we push them away instead of letting them be.

Noticing what you think and feel by practicing the five steps below is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Cultivating this ability is so worth it because you come to realize that letting yourself feel anxious isn’t nearly as uncomfortable as trying to STOP being anxious. Let’s be honest, you’ve already tried to prevent, avoid, and reject anxiety, so you know that approach doesn’t work.

You can manage, and better yet feel, all of your emotions no matter how uncomfortable it might be at first. Over time you can become more familiar with and accustomed to what it’s like to feel. Anxiety won’t kill you and your experience of it is nothing more than physical sensations in your body. Experiencing all of your emotions fully could be one of the most important things you do in life. We weren’t put on this earth just to walk around feeling apathetic and numb, right? You’re not reading this blog because that’s what you want. You’re reading it because you’re ready to feel all the feels in a way that’s conducive to your livelihood.

The first step to managing anxiety is always awareness. The next step is sitting back and watching it happen. And finally, we get to reprogram our thoughts toward the emotional experience we prefer. This isn’t always obvious while you’re in the moment though, so try following the step-by-step guide when you feel anxious.

5 Steps to Manage Anxiety

Step 1 – Name the feeling. Is it anxiety? Or fear? Or helplessness? Or something else maybe? Notice if your brain wants to give you a paragraph. Narrow it down to a one-word feeling. Follow that up with a quick description of the physical sensations you feel in your body. “My head is spinning,” is a thought, not a physical sensation. Be specific. Be literal. Maybe your hands sweat, fists or jaw clench, stomach turns, throat tightens, that sort of thing. Whatever it is, name it. By shifting into observation mode in this step you can get out of experiencing the discomfort that is associated with a negative emotion and realize that the unwanted emotion isn’t that awful to experience after all.

Step 2 – Identify the thought. The thought is a sentence in your brain that ties to that feeling. If you catch yourself having lots of thoughts, that’s fine, go with the very first sentence that comes to mind.

Step 3 – Allow the emotion. Let it be there. Feel it. No matter how uncomfortable this part is, it won’t kill you. Your brain will probably send you signals that you should stop. If it does, know that you’re doing it right. To me, global pandemics, death, and human suffering in general are worth feeling upset about. I’m okay with feeling anxious, afraid, and even depressed by these things. I accept that. I’m all good with feeling like absolute sh*t about global tragedy… for awhile. 

Step 4 – Take time. Don’t rush to change your emotion. If you do, you’ll end up facing the negative emotion more intensely for longer. No matter how much you might want to get rid of your anxiety, resisting it only creates tension. Take as long as you need. Even the worst feeling emotions subside and give way to new ones. 

Step 5 – Choose a thought or mantra to repeat in your brain. Choose a thought that you believe is true, but creates a different, more desirable feeling. Write it down and repeat it. Tell your mom, tell me, post it online, whatever it takes. You can always control where you place your attention and that means focusing on this new thought. This step isn’t meant to be easy. It’s a practice, not a perfect. Keep trying, don’t quit. You can do hard things. It’s worth the effort.

Here are a few thoughts I like to redirect my brain towards when I’m feeling anxious. Try them on and see how they make you feel. 

  • “I don’t know how all of this will turn out, and that’s okay.”
  • “I know what to do today.”
  • “I have everything I need.”
  • “This uncomfortable feeling I’m experiencing will not last forever.”

Do any of these thoughts feel like a fit when you try them on? Which step was most helpful for you to manage your anxiety?

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