Quite often, I get asked “what should someone do after they realise they’re anxious?”
There’s no definitive answer to that question – every person and every situation is different, so it’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice.
But there are a few ideas which might help someone figure out the next step for them…
First, it might be worth acknowledging that simply recognising anxiety is the problem is a big step. It took me years of constant anxiety before I realised a) that wasn’t normal and b) there were things I could do about it. Even admitting the problem exists can be a relief!
After that, though, things can get very confusing. I was drowning in advice and options and strategies.
(Admittedly, this is better than drowning in anxiety itself, but when you’re already exhausted from being constantly anxious, it’s hard to make decisions even about what steps to take to make it better.)
If you’re in a similarly confused state, here are some potential avenues to explore.
Although! Please remember that these ideas may or may not work for you, and that that’s fine.
It just means that isn’t the right idea for you! It’s easy to jump into catastrophic thinking like “OH GOD THIS SOLUTION EVERYONE SAYS HELPS DIDN’T HELP ME; I’M A HOPELESS CASE; I’LL BE ANXIOUS FOREVER”. After all, that kind of thinking is what the anxious brain is really, really good at..!
1) Accept the Anxiety
In my experience, fighting anxiety only feeds it further. Thinking thoughts like “I hate anxiety! I wish I wasn’t anxious! Anxiety go away!” only magnifies it.
It feels wrong, but forcing myself to think things like “oh, hello anxiety, I’m totally relaxed about you being here again” is very helpful for massively reducing my anxiety. And this frees up energy to take other steps.
(I wrote a fairly silly post a few years ago which explores this dynamic a little more.)
2) Believe you can do something about it
One of my least favourite anxious feelings is the fear that terror will never go away, that I’m condemned to feel constantly afraid forever. But I no longer believe that is true.
It may (will?) require help – and the feelings may only be reduced, not eliminated – but hold onto the hope that you will not feel this way forever: feeling better is possible.
3) Acknowledge it’ll require some change
Clearly, continuing exactly how you are won’t help.
Something has to change; whether its some habitual negative thoughts, your environment, your internal chemistry, or whatever.
And any change requires at least a little effort.
This effort doesn’t have to be scary. It might be good to start with tiny, achievable changes – like taking a walk, or drinking some water, or breathing slowly for literally five seconds every now and then.
These tiny changes might just break the anxious cycle of ruminating on whatever your anxiety is currently fixating on, and from a slightly more relaxed position, a slightly bigger change might appear more achievable.
4) Find help
This is the big, obvious one. (This perhaps ought to be step #1, but I wanted to focus first on a few little things you can do yourself.)
It can be scary to talk to somebody else about anxiety for the first time. But, in my experience, people tend to react overwhelmingly positively to genuine requests for support.
(Of course, it helps if you’re already friends with the person and not, say, talking to a supermarket cashier at the time. Judge for yourself where is a sensible place to look for support!)
Whether it’s your friends, family, peers, colleagues, school pastoral support, a group you’re part of, a local charity, a therapist, a doctor, an online community, or anything else, it’s really helpful to find a place where you can be supported.
Of course it’s possible to achieve a lot on your own – there are tonnes of resources, blog posts, books, self-care ideas out there – but remember that working on anxiety isn’t a straight line from “ANXIOUS” to “NOT-ANXIOUS”, so it’s incredibly useful to have somebody you can vent to whenever you inevitably dip back down into “ANXIOUS”.
5) Don’t worry when anxiety comes back
Okay, saying “don’t worry” is admittedly a bit ridiculous. If I could just ‘not worry’, then most of my problems would already be solved!
But you know what I mean! Accept in advance that you can’t just flip a switch and fix everything.
There will be days when you feel better, and days when you feel worse.
The aim is to move towards having more of the good days, and fewer of the bad – but having a bad day isn’t a reason to freak out. It doesn’t mean all is lost, it doesn’t mean all your effort was for nothing, it simply is what it is: a bad day.
6) Perhaps choose a single improvement and work on it for a short time
It’s great that you have so many options for changing things, any of which might help with your anxiety! But it can also be overwhelming.
Should you aim for more sleep? A better diet? More exercise? Therapy? Meditation? Undoing a common thought pattern which gets you stuck in an anxious cycle?
Even listing all the possibilities can be anxiety inducing!
Try to recognise that you have limited resources right now (this is one of the sneaky ways anxiety traps you – it sucks up your resources so you can’t fix the thing that is sucking up your resources!), and resist the temptation to declare “I am changing my entire life and will live well FOREVER!”
Instead, perhaps choose a gentle, achievable commitment like “for the next couple of days I’m going to eat more vegetables”. Or take a quiet walk for ten minutes. Or notice when I’m stuck in an anxious loop. Or whatever.
Your brain might object, with something like “eating more vegetables won’t solve our problems!” And if so, your brain is correct! This isn’t supposed to solve all your problems. It’s merely supposed to help.
Thinking that any one thing CAN solve all your problems might even be part of the problem in the first place! We can obsess over finding the one thing that will fix everything, and just give ourselves new sticks to beat ourselves with.
(“I failed at my million self-improvements today, I’m terrible and deserve to be anxious forever” is an anxious trap I’m very familiar with)
Over time, lots of tiny helpful actions add up to increased energy and decreased anxiety. None of them individually solves anything much, but together they help us to feel better.
7) If you can, use the good days to work on the roots of the problem
When you have a good day, it’s tempting to stop putting effort into self-improvement (or whatever you want to call it).
Unfortunately, this can just lead to a cycle – feeling bad, so taking actions to feel better; feeling better, so stopping; then feeling bad again.
In the better times, it seems wise to spend some energy on deeper analysis – where did the anxiety come from in the first place? What’s the deep root of it?
This is hard work, and may well require assistance from friends or, ideally, professionals. But it’s this foundational work which leads to a more resilient life, and keeps us off the custard for longer.
I hope these thoughts might be helpful. This post isn’t exhaustive, or universal – some of it may work for you, some may not, and I’m absolutely sure there are plenty of aspects I’ve not touched upon.
But hopefully this can help you find a starting point when you’re confused.
If you have other tips for someone just figuring out how to begin tackling anxiety, then please share them in the comments!
No unachievable ambitions were harmed during the production of this post.
Don’t forget to watch the custard-based TED talk, if you haven’t already! (And if you have, why not tell your friends about it?!)
Or check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores anxiety and happiness through embarrassing real-life stories, fantasy fiction, thought-provoking discussion and terribly-drawn doodles.
Read the whole series on Anxiety here.