Management & Leadership

5 Strategies for coping with anxiety

Jan 29, 2018
How to deal with anxiety

When you try too hard to control your anxieties, you only heighten them. Letting go may actually help you get a grip – and finally win over worry.

Key takeaways

  • Constant anxiety can be crippling. This doesn’t need to be the case however, with the right tools, relief can be found.
  • Cognitive restructuring, mindfulness-based therapy, exposure therapy and reframing techniques are some of the psychological approaches used to help manage anxiety.
  • Anxiety is something that almost everyone feels at some part of our lives and finding healthy, adaptive ways of coping can be of great benefit to our physical and mental health.

Anxiety has a way of becoming all consuming. Whether it takes the form of extreme panic or chronic worry, anxiety can infiltrate every aspect of your life. It might stop you from studying, prevent you from finding a job, interfere with your relationships, or even make you afraid to leave your own home. In short, it can be truly debilitating.

This does not need to be the case however. With the right tools it is possible to identify the sources of your anxiety and take active steps to find relief. Here are five psychological approaches to help you win over worry:

1. Think positively

Think positive thoughts may be somewhat clichéd, but in reality feelings of anxiety are usually the result of negative or unhelpful thoughts. In addition to this anxiety increases negative thinking patterns, thus setting up an endless cycle of worry and doubt.

Cognitive restructuring is an approach utilised by psychologists to assist individuals in challenging negative or problematic thoughts in order to develop more helpful and constructive ways of thinking. When ‘training’ yourself to think positively consider faking positivity, writing in a positivity journal, and spending time with more positive people.

2. Practice acceptance

Although anxiety is the result of your fears, the truth is that many people also fear anxiety itself, which in turn contributes to further anxiety. In mindfulness-based therapy, distress about the experience of anxiety, rather than anxiety itself, is the focus. Here the psychologist assists the person to remain present and focus on the bodily sensations and thoughts that arise when he or she is anxious. This non-judgemental awareness decreases the temptation to avoid, withdraw or fight symptoms of anxiety. This results in the person feeling less overwhelmed and more able engage with life.

Accept your anxiety by talking openly about it. Don’t try to hide when you’re suffering. The more you prevent your anxiety from intimidating you, the easier it will be to manage it.

3. Relinquish Control

Accepting the fact that life is uncontrollable a good way to managing anxiety in the long term. In an attempt to feel less vulnerable and insecure we try to control situations that are out of our control. As we go through life, we often begin to feel bogged down by mounting responsibilities, workloads and conflict, and get caught up in experiencing a confusing and turbulent world. Amid all the worry we can forget one of our most important responsibilities: that our lives are precious and that we are truly the only people who can enjoy them.

4. Get Excited!

People who deal with low levels of anxiety traditionally cope by trying to relax – but new research reveals that there might be a better way.  

In a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, researchers found that the most effective way of dealing with feelings of anxiety is not to fight them, but to reframe them. As a result it may be easier and more effective to tell yourself that you’re excited instead of trying to convince yourself that you’re calm. Physiologically, feeling excitement is similar to feeling anxiety, only it doesn’t come with the same negative side effects, says Professor Alison Wood Brooks, the study’s lead researcher.

Brooks and her team conducted a series of experiments to measure how people performed under pressure when they attempted to recast their anxiety as excitement. In one experiment, they administered a timed maths test to students, offering a performance-based financial incentive to make it even more stressful. For some of the students – who were taking the test on a computer – the screen flashed “Try to remain calm,” while for others, the words “Get excited!” appeared. Those encouraged to “get excited” scored, on average, 8% higher than those told to “try to remain calm”.

Says Brooks: “Anxiety and excitement have divergent effects on performance, but the experience of these two emotions is quite similar…Unlike anxious versus calm feelings, which differ in high versus low arousal, anxiety and excitement are physiologically similar. However, where anxiety is a negative, aversive emotion that harms performance, excitement is a positive, pleasant emotion that can improve performance.”

5. Talk to someone if you are struggling to cope

While everyone experiences different levels of anxiety, when we feel like anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it interferes with day-to-day activities, we could consider seeking help from others. Research has shown that of 75% of us who experience high levels of anxiety in our lives, around 33% of us will feel like we cannot cope with our worry and would benefit from talking to a skilled helper. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) is a good place to start when seeking a registered counsellor or psychotherapist.

Professional counsellors treat anxiety and depression by helping those who suffer from these conditions develop methods for overcoming them. If you want to learn more about counselling and what it entails, you could study a counselling course at SACAP. Options range from the comprehensive, 3-year Bachelor of Applied Social Science (BAppSocSci) degree, to the 1-year (or 2 year part-time) Higher Certificate in Counselling and Communication Skills. For more information, enquire now.

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