Feel anxious? Mental health experts reveal how to build a ‘mental gym’
If you feel particularly concerned about the state of the world, you are not alone.
While it’s important to figure out what can be done to alleviate these stressors at their root, you also can’t do this work if you’re burnt out.
The 2022 Stress in America Survey, an annual report by the American Psychological Association, captured a wide range of heightened fears and anxieties. Eighty-one percent of respondents cite “global uncertainty” as the main source of stress, and levels of money-related stress are the highest since 2015. Seventy-three percent say they feel overwhelmed by the number of crises around the world, with 63% reporting that their life has been “changed forever” by Covid-19.
Meanwhile, a recent American Psychiatric Association poll found that 51% of Americans are worried about how climate change will affect future generations.
Along with these concerns, new anxieties are being raised about our new normal, such as returning to in-person work and hiding confrontations.
There are steps you can take to reduce your anxiety just before you encounter a trigger and at the time of the confrontation. Some of these overlap with what you can do more generally to increase your ability to manage your worries.
Integrating mindfulness is key at every step, says Kate Sweeny, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment, being aware of your thoughts and feelings, and using that awareness to manage those emotions without judgment.
Sweeny tells me that even a brief mindfulness exercise can be helpful in calming the mind, preparing it for a “less reactive and more productive response to stress”, managing stress in the moment, and developing a higher stress threshold and of anxiety.
“I like the idea of mindfulness like going to the ‘mental gym,'” Sweeny says.
“Practicing repeatedly builds strength and resilience, but even practicing in the moment can metaphorically ‘pump up’ our muscles and give us a boost of calm.”
What to do before encountering what makes you anxious
Maybe it’s an hour before an encounter you’re dreading, maybe it’s before you read the news. We all experience the moments of stomach ache that precede an anxiety-provoking event. Sometimes we can feel anxious about anxiety.
In the moments before you encounter what makes you anxious, it’s helpful to ask yourself what’s the best, worst, and most likely scenario that could result from the experience, says therapist Alyssa Mancao. Because anxiety often causes us to focus on the worst-case scenario, asking yourself these questions can shift your perspective, she explains.
Repeating an uplifting affirmation can also help, Mancao says, as can practicing deep breaths.
Celeste Viciere, also a therapist, recommends deep breathing and describes it as an “underappreciated powerful tool”. She says simply setting aside two minutes to breathe can help.
When mentally preparing to deal with a stressful situation, it’s also essential to pay attention to the language you use to describe your anxiety, Viciere says.
“A lot of times people will sadly say, ‘I’m anxious,'” she tells me.
Joel Minden, clinical psychologist and author of the book Show your anxiety who’s boss, recommends putting this reflection on paper. It approves the writing of your concerns, as well as the responses you would like to use if you encounter those concerns.
“Taking worries out of your mind and putting them on paper is a great way to pause from overthinking,” Minden says. “If you catch yourself worrying about something you’ve worked on before, you can remember that you spent time on that problem and solved it – so you don’t have to mentally review it. .”
Writing also brings greater clarity to vague thinking, Minden adds, which can help with problem solving. By addressing what particularly worries you, you can shift your focus from “what ifs” to productive actions.
What to do when you are in a stressful situation
Most people make the mistake of focusing on their anxiety and how to control it when they’re in a stressful situation, Minden says. This is especially true when experiencing social anxiety: people can get caught up in their own emotions and be afraid of how they are perceived.
Instead, it’s more helpful to “shift your attention to the other person and the experience of interacting with them,” Minden says. He recommends remembering this through the “accept and redirect” mantra. You can take a moment to internally accept that you are feeling anxious and then redirect your attention and behavior back to the situation.
During anxiety-provoking moments, it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to react immediately to whatever triggers your anxiety, Mancao says.
“You can take a deep breath, reflect, or ask to pause so you can collect your thoughts,” she says.
How to deal with daily anxiety
“It’s great to have tools when we’re in an anxious situation,” says Viciere. “But it’s even better to have a regiment and consider it your daily medicine.”
This routine can include healthy eating, good sleep, exercise, and mindfulness. It’s important to check in with yourself, says Viciere, and be careful about how you frame your experiences.
She cites work as an example: if you prepare for work and think about it negatively, your mind will search for evidence to confirm that it’s bad. Even if the day ends better than the day before, you’ll probably focus on what didn’t go well. To move forward in a way that benefits mental health, it’s best to refocus your thoughts on what you control and what you can change, Viciere says.
Effective strategies for managing stress also include “setting limits on the number or intensity of stressful experiences you have, prioritizing self-care, and engaging in activities that promote relaxation – such as sleeping, yoga, meditation or massage,” says Minden.
“Anxiety management is improved by shifting your focus from trying to reduce or control it and instead learning to accept, tolerate and overcome it,” he adds.