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What Can You Do If You Are Anxious?

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Anxiety is often triggered by stress: the longer a stressful situation lasts, the more anxious you become. It also increases stress: the more anxious you become, the more stress you feel. Anxiety skyrocketed during the pandemic, rising 643% in just eight months as people reacted to the constant stress of isolation, fear for their own health and the health of loved ones, and overloaded support systems.

However, the SMaRT strategies for dealing with anxiety are somewhat different than those for dealing with stress. For example, changing or removing yourself from the cause of stress will usually alleviate stress; but it will not help with anxiety because that is an internal response not directly related to the external trigger. 

Alma appeared in the emergency room complaining of trouble breathing, a racing heart, and pains in her chest. The doctors and nurses examined her for a potential heart attack, but everything was fine. The symptoms began when her grandchild suggested flying out to visit her. Alma was terrified of planes.

John dashed from the business meeting to the bathroom. He suffered gastrointestinal distress every time he attended a meeting, and it was embarrassing. Soon he began missing meetings, but he always had a reason: “no one told me about it;” “I had an important client on the phone;” “I didn’t think you needed me there.” His coworkers were annoyed at having to brief him after every meeting. Eventually, John left for a new job without ever connecting his physical distress to anxiety—until the same symptoms occurred at his first meeting.

The fundamental difference between stress and anxiety is that:

  • Stress is your response to an external situation, such as a tight deadline at work. Usually, the source of stress is clear. 
  • Anxiety is your response to an internal feeling of dread or apprehension. You may feel anxiety over your anxiety because the source is so unclear. 

Chronic stress is a common trigger for anxiety. Both chronic stress and anxiety affect your physical, emotional, social, and intellectual well-being and are excellent reasons for seeing a licensed mental health professional.

Learn to Recognize Your Anxiety

Recognizing your own anxiety is more difficult than recognizing anxiety in someone else. Like many people, you may seek out treatment, not for your emotional problem, but for your physical symptoms. You may also assume that other people have the problem; they simply do not know how to deal with your (high strong, introverted, sensitive, or other adjective) personality.

You will have more success in recognizing your anxiety if you:

  • Practice mindfulness. Among the obstacles to SMaRT mindfulness, anxiety ranks very high, with its distractions of worry, restlessness, sleeplessness, and irritation. Therefore, your ability to recognize your anxiety in the moment—to feel what you are feeling—enables you to identify anxiety and also to break the cycle of distraction.
  • Become educated. If people are worried about you, assume for the moment that they have seen something you missed. Learn about anxiety and how it manifests itself. For example, chronic panic attacks are a sign of anxiety, not stress. Perhaps you have become less productive, or perhaps you constantly overachieve, insisting on perfection and fearful of failure. Maybe you have become irritable and difficult to work with, or maybe you are a perpetual people pleaser, always worried about what other people will think. Anxiety has many forms.
  • Evaluate your reliance on self-medication and self-soothing. Cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or other addictive substances ignite and aggravate anxiety attacks and are a stop-gap measure at best. Your anxiety may express itself in rituals like having to always cross a threshold on the same foot or compulsively straightening items. Addictions and compulsive behaviors that interfere with your life need to be addressed.

TIP: Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by constant, excessive, and uncontrollable worry. If you are obsessed by your worries, overthink even the simplest decisions, or feel that situations or events are threatening when they aren’t, you are suffering from anxiety.

Learn How to Manage an Anxiety Attack

In the midst of anxiety, taking any steps can seem formidable. However, the following strategies are helpful in managing the onset of an anxiety attack: 

  • Breathe. Do not wait until full-blown panic sets in. Any one of a number of deep breathing methods will help. Perhaps the easiest is to breathe in for a slow count of four, hold, and then breathe out for a slow count of four. Place your hand on your belly and try to breathe in so that it fills with air and breath out so that it empties, rather than breathing from your chest. Close your eyes if it helps you to concentrate on your breathing.
  • Focus on something external. A calming picture, a tree outside your window, a piece of furniture—any object will do if you take the time to recite to yourself every characteristic of the object. By focusing on something else, you give your anxiety symptoms time to subside. If no object is available, try imagining your happy place and putting yourself there.
  • Find opportunities to laugh. Watch comedians and comedies on TV, read humorous books, share a joke with a friend, or remember a previous event that made you laugh. Laughter reminds you that the world can be a less anxious and more welcoming place.
  • Visit a doctor. Frequent anxiety attacks that you cannot control, thoughts of suicide, and symptoms of depression require attention. Therapists, psychologists, and many coaches are trained to help you recognize anxiety symptoms and deal with them. If necessary, medications are available to treat anxiety attacks at the onset.

TIP: Your mental health professional may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy or prescribe nonaddictive pharmaceuticals to stop an anxiety attack before it becomes full-blown.


Learn How to Help a Team Member with Anxiety

To recognize and respond to anxiety in others, try the Harvard Medical School  practice of I.C.U.: 

  • Identify the signs. Signs of anxiety or emotional stress in a team or family member include sadness, withdrawal, and irritability.
  • Connect with the person. Find a quiet place to ask, “Is there something wrong or something upsetting you? What can I do to help?”
  • Understand the way forward together. You may do enough simply by listening but you should also have on hand information about where the team or family member can find support.

You may find that helping others with their anxiety takes a toll on your own emotional health. You may need to find someone to talk to about your own feelings.

In the workplace, you may also want to encourage a survey of how supported individuals feel by asking:

  • Are you comfortable asking colleagues for help?
  • Are you comfortable approaching someone who is tearful?
  • Do you know where to refer colleagues for help?
  • Are you comfortable using the company’s referral program?

If the answers to these questions are primarily “no,” your workplace would benefit from having outside and professional guidance in recognizing symptoms of stress and anxiety, managing and preventing stress and anxiety, and removing any concerns about seeking or recommending help.

TIP: Telling an anxious person that there is nothing to worry about is counterproductive and frustrating for both of you.

Key Takeaways

Stress is focused outward to a situation that is stressful; anxiety is focused inward on feelings such as panic, worry, fear, and inadequacy. Your ability to handle repeated anxiety attacks is bolstered by talking with a mental health professional to find your triggers and the types of interventions that work best for you.

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