Twenty years ago, my social anxiety was so bad I only left my house in the cover of the night. Ten years ago, I still had panic attacks if I had to use a public restroom or take a bus.
20% of us are still suffering from life inhibiting anxiety right now. It often starts with a small fear. You cave into it, and before you know it, everything is terrifying.
My world used to be very dark and small between thick walls of fear and anxiety, but I have managed to tear them down. Today I am travelling around the world alone as it was the most natural thing in the world. My next significant milestone on my journey to befriend my fear is public speaking.
Here are some of the tools I have used in the past, and techniques I am still using every day.
You can do all of these alone or with a close friend or family member, depending on what feels more comfortable for you.
Don’t try to fight it. The fear of being afraid is worse than feeling fear. So much unnecessary pain is afflicted in attempting to escape the feeling.
I noticed in earlier versions of this post that I wrote “my battle against the anxiety”. Semantics matter, so I have since changed it. Fighting is precisely the opposite of what we want to do. We want to meet our emotions with compassion and befriend them.
If you think of anxiety as a threat, your body will prepare for battle, and you’ll feel like you’re in a fight. On the other hand, if you choose to view this stress as a challenge, then you’re more likely to think you are capable of handling it. As a bonus, thanks to the calming effect it has on your body, you actually will be more capable and less likely to fail.
To build a challenge mindset, reflect on past challenges that you’ve overcome. Let’s say you’re worried about a job interview. Take a moment to think back to past situations. Did you handle them successfully? What exactly did you do? When you remind yourself that you have succeeded before, the task in front of you doesn’t seem so impossible.
Get an overview
To get an overview over what it is you have to work on, it can be beneficial to do intuition writing where you allow all your thoughts and emotions to flow freely onto the paper without questions or judgement. Don’t analyze or think about grammars or if what you write makes sense. Don’t stop to read what you wrote until you feel like you have emptied your mind.
This is very similar to other mindfulness exercises, but writing is an essential component. You can use pen pressure to express anger or sadness. Tear a hole in the paper if you need to.
Getting your fears onto paper makes them seem less overwhelming, and you might even experience moments of clarity where your inner wisdom gives you the answers you need.
Don’t worry if nothing happens in the first few times. If you’re not used to allowing yourself to feel negative emotions or have a strong tendency towards self-criticism and judgment, it might take a bit of practice.
The way we think about things affects how we feel emotionally. Thorugh understanding of the problem is the first step to solve it.
In psychology, this is called cognitive behavioural therapy. Cognitive therapy focuses on present thinking, behaviour, and communication rather than on past experiences. The goal is to change our thought patterns, our conscious and unconscious beliefs, our attitudes, and, ultimately, our behaviour to help us face difficulties and achieve our goals.
Cognitive therapy applies to a broad range of problems, including depression, anxiety, panic, fears, eating disorders, substance abuse, and personality problems.
A simple example of a cognitive exercise is to think about something that causes discomfort. Then you ask yourself why you feel that way. Where does the fear come from? What is the worst that could happen if your fear comes true? In many cases, this is enough to take the edge of the feeling.
The five why’s is a technique we use in user experience design to understand the root of the problem, but it works for personal challenges as well. Read more about it here: the five whys
A psychologist can do this with you, and if you are new to the idea, it might be a good idea to get some help to find the right technique. Still, if you’re like me and get impatient with psychologists, I recommend the workbook Mind over Mood by Greenberger and Padesky.
Reappraisal strategies are more effective than suppression for regulating emotions. Recently, proponents of the acceptance-based behaviour therapy movement have further emphasized the importance of acceptance-based emotion regulation techniques.
What this means is that instead of trying to remove the feeling by fighting it, you can change the nature of it by reappraising it.
Replace the word “anxious” with “excited”. For example,- instead of “I am anxious about making a fool out of myself in that job interview” you could try “I am excited about the opportunity to prove myself in that job interview”.
Jeremy Jamieson of Rochester University, in 2010, found out that if we chose to believe anxiety is a good thing that helps performance – it would help. You don’t even have to tell yourself you are excited. Jamieson found out math scores improved just by telling students anxiety enhances performance.
It sounds like a silly new age mantra or positive thinking rubbish, I know, but it works. (It blew me away).
Tell it like it is
If you’re still terrified and your pulse is racing, tell people how you feel. Simply expressing it takes the edge of it, and people are surprisingly understanding. Often they are just as terrified as you are, so it can even be a great icebreaker.
Thank you to Dr Olaf Hermans PhD for quality assurance and great suggestions for improving this article.