Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed, stressed, and worried. It could be about anything from fear that I will miss getting Girl Scout Cookies this year to thinking my life is meaningless.
Sometimes my feelings turn into intrusive thoughts and those become overarching moods. Every one of my actions and interactions start to become reflections of my mood. Sometimes it can feel like one little transient feeling can take over my whole being and my whole life.
The good thing is, with more practice and experience with these kinds of feelings, I have gotten much better at identifying them earlier – before they become anything bigger.
I go through my anxiety checklist to prevent the fleeting feelings from taking over. Everyone’s checklist will be different. Everyone has different things that bother them, and different things that make them happy. Some people have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and work with a doctor or a coach to make their checklists. My checklist is just what has worked for me when I start to feel a little overwhelmed.
Where does it all come from?
Fear vs Anxiety
Fear and anxiety both cause an emotional stress response. It is important to notice both feelings.
People say that these responses developed in similar ways. Fear and anxiety both trigger a fight or flight type response. A lot of people say that anxiety has evolved from fear, but that is not accurate. It can’t be true because people have had anxiety forever, and fear lives on in modern times.
People say that we used to have stressors, like predators, that caused fear, and now we have stressors like deadlines, and that causes anxiety. There are a lot of people who try to differentiate them by saying fear is a response to something real and anxiety is based on something imagined. This is getting closer, but still not exactly the whole story. I believe the outcomes that cause anxiety can be very real – if you don’t accomplish this thing, you won’t get paid, and you won’t have food to eat. That is very real. If you see a tiger, it will not necessarily eat you. Fear can also be imagined.
I think the main difference may stem from something called a delayed-return environment. This article by James Clear explains it well:
To put it simply, immediate return environment means when you take action after having a stress feeling, something is changed in a way to make the stress feeling go away. Sometimes this can temporarily come up in modern times – stress can come from needing food, water, shelter, or sleep, and when we get it, we feel better. But that is not really how will live.
A Delayed Return Environment is an environment of uncertainty – As James Clear says, there are no guarantees. Living in this environment, when our brain is trained to succeed in an Immediate-Return Environment, causes the increased anxiety about the unknown which is different from the untrue.
Our Reward Systems
Because our brains have evolved for many years in an immediate-return environment, but we live in a delayed-return environment, there is a disconnect. We crave immediate rewards. We get creative with how we get those rewards – even if they are not that rewarding in the end. Eating a lot of dessert, over scrolling social media, looking at real estate you can’t afford, playing tablet games, looking at oddly satisfying things or baby animals for an hour – these are all things that I have done recently to try to get the taste of an immediate reward.
I can go even further by saying that feeling worry, feeling stress, and feeling anxiety is often immediate, and it can trick us into thinking we have done something. But these rewards, whether it is a fourth cookie or a sense of worry, don’t actually reduce the anxiety. This can cause a false feedback loop that can spiral.
My Anxiety Checklist
Understanding why things are happening, and knowing what actions don’t help, can only get me so far. I have made a list of things I can do if I ever identify the anxiety or stress response, or if I feel it coming on.
Listen to Your Thoughts and Feelings
Sometimes I just lie down and let all my thoughts go through my head. Sometimes I do Morning Pages. Sometimes I talk to someone about how I am feeling.
It is important to pay attention to how you are feeling and not ignore it. Sometimes it can be helpful for me to figure out why I am having these feelings. It could be an event coming up, or something that someone has said to me or about me recently, it could be something I saw on television or many different reasons. It is hard to figure out the reason you are having feeling if you try to push those feelings away.
Feelings aren’t Facts
I have learned and keep reminding myself that feelings aren’t facts. Even though I know my feelings are very real, I also know that feelings don’t mean they are reality. I might feel like I am a failure, but that doesn’t mean I am a failure. I might feel like I should be able to run a mile, but that doesn’t mean that I should be able to run a mile. I try to remember where these thoughts and rules and labels came from. These guidelines are not the final say on what is right.
After I listen to my thoughts, and let them wash over me, I try to quiet them. I focus on my breathing instead. I take full, deep, yummy breaths in, and long, complete, cleansing breaths out. Try these counts:
- Start with inhaling for a 3 count, and exhaling for a 3 count
- Eventually, add a 3 count hold between the inhale and exhale
- Build your exhale up to be a 5 count (In for 3, Hold for 3, Out for 5)
- Increase this over time until the rhythm is In for 4, Hold for 4, Out for 8.
Your counts may differ. See what works best for you, but try to make your end goal a longer exhale than inhale. The concentration on the breath helps you to have something to focus on, but also it makes you take care of something that you know is important – your breathing – so you know you are taking care of yourself.
Physical Manifestations of Stress
As you get familiar with this breathing exercise, you will find that while you practice your breathing, your physical manifestations of stress will start to dissipate. These physical manifestations include things like grinding your teeth, tensing the muscles in your shoulders and hips, squinting and looking at things up close, or keeping your weight imbalanced. When you start to feel how you’re holding your body, you can start to apply a mental salve.
Mantras, Affirmations, and Visualizations
Then when my mind is more quiet, I can start to shift my thoughts to something more manageable, and something that can keep my anxiety at bay.
There are many examples of mantras, affirmations, and visualizations that work for different people. Here are a few examples that I like
- I am exactly where I need to be.
- Things are happening right on time.
- I choose to let go.
- I give myself permission to do what is right for me.
- I am the person I want to be.
Listen to Music
Listen to Music from when you were 11. Or 8. Or 23.
Hopefully, there is a time in your life you can look back on and feel it was peaceful. If not that, you can look back at a time that feels easier than the time you are going through right now. At the very least, you can think of a time that you made it through.
All that is to say – there is a time in your life that you are past, and if it was more peaceful and less stressful, there is a high chance you had the leisure time to listen to music. If you listen to the music you listened to when you were taken care of and felt safe, or you felt in control of your life, you will remember how that feels, and you will be reminded that you can get to that space again.
Do Something Active With Your Hands
Doing something active with your hands is great because you can start to feel control over something, even if it is small. Of course, what you choose to do can make a big difference, so it is best to do something that might actually reduce your stress. Cleaning, doing dishes, cooking yourself a meal – these are all things that we can all do that will have an actual end result that is helpful. This can make your brain feel immediate rewards, and start to relax.
There are other things that may be more relaxing like completing a puzzle, doing a craft, or building something that can give you a much needed sense of accomplishment. These types of tasks come with a feeling of control that can help release the feelings of uncertainty. Everyone is different with what relaxes them – make sure you pay attention to your needs and how you feel during the task.
There is an added benefit that you can often accomplish these tasks while you are listening to music. Multitasking doesn’t have to be stressful!
Because so much stress is caused by delayed returns and uncertainty, it is important to find measurable ways to track what we accomplish. Tracking can be an immediate reward in itself, because you can see your progress, even if the reward will be abstract.
Be Positively Curious
Curiosity is extremely powerful. It can bring you down a dark hole of worrying “what if” – what if this feeling never goes away, what if I don’t finish this assignment, what if I never have friends, what if I never find happiness. We can start to think bad things will happen to us. We so easily let ourselves get to this negative head space. It is much rarer to allow ourselves to be curious about the positive “what ifs.” There is a popular poem by Eric Hanson
There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask ‘ What if I fall? ‘
Oh but my darling, WHAT IF YOU FLY?Erin Hanson
The poem is popular for precisely this idea – we are easily guided by the negative what ifs, but the positive what ifs can be just as possible, especially in a world of uncertainty.
It can feel good to be curious about the possibilities of goodness in your life. Be curious about why you want to do the things that are stressful to you. Be curious and creative about figuring out why. Maybe you won’t finish that assignment after all, but that might lead to something great.
Be Kind To Others
Calling a friend and checking in on them can be something immediately rewarding to you, helpful to your friend. You should always be letting your friends know that you like the people they are, and you can about their well-being. It can be eye-opening to remind yourself how you feel about your friends, and how they feel about you. This can alter how you feel about yourself, and how you treat yourself.
Be Kind To Yourself
Having anxiety doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. It is similar to having thirst or hunger. It’s not a flaw you have to get rid of, it is something everyone has that we have to learn how to live with. There is not something you can eat or drink today that will make it so you are never hungry or thirsty again. You have a daily practice of eating and drinking, and you should have a daily practice of being kind to yourself, too. Acknowledge your feelings of anxiety, and feel okay about them. Then do something nice for yourself.
So that is my anxiety reduction checklist! Do you think I’m missing anything important? What do you have on your checklist that works for you? Is there anything on my checklist that you would like to try out?