“Every day brings a choice: to practice stress or to practice peace.” ~Joan Borysenko
After years and years of living with anxiety, I can’t tell you exactly what I have been anxious about.
Is it a pervasive thought about how my life will end? Is it a constant worry about my financial security? Is it simply that I’m nervous to give a speech in front of people? Or a combination of all of them?
Even thinking about anxiety causes more anxiety. Ahhh!
Anxiety is also really hard to define. It’s so subjective.
I don’t think my anxiety will ever truly go away. I still have thoughts about the future, and the “what ifs” still run through my mind.
I’m not some blissful angel walking around in a constant state of Zen. At least, this is how I imagine how I would be anxiety-free. There doesn’t seem to be a cure for anxiety that works for everyone. If you find one, please let me know.
However, I know that I am no longer miserable. It’s different now than before. There are some positive things that have worked for me.
One of the worst parts of my anxiety was that nobody could tell I had it. When I told people, they responded, “Wow, you always seem so calm and put together.”
That is not how I felt on the inside. Why was what I felt on the inside so different than how others perceived me? I wanted to change this, and I wanted to be comfortable.
I have found some ways to cope with and significantly reduce my anxiety about the future. Because that is what anxiety is all about—the future. Yet, I experience anxiety in the moment, not in the future.
Rationally, this does not make any sense. How is feeling anxious in this moment going to fix or solve any problem in the future? It can’t. Oh, how I wish it were that cut and dry.
However, telling myself this simple fact somehow helps a little. Anxiety isn’t logical. The more I treat it that way, the less I struggle with it. Still, even if it isn’t logical, it is very real.
I’ve found that small action steps can turn some of these thoughts into real positive change, which helps me be a little more comfortable. The best part is the more you do them, the easier it becomes. It’s like a muscle you need to keep working out.
Here is a breakdown of action steps to take when you’re worrying about the future.
First, acknowledge what you’re worried about.
Let’s say I have constant anxiety about an upcoming work conference where I know I will have to interact with important people. When I acknowledge that I’m feeling anxious, and why, I can then begin to take action.
Next, ask yourself, what I am actually afraid of, and why?
Write it out if you’d like. In the above situation for me, it would have been the fear of passing out or throwing up as someone important approaches me or asks me a question. Why? Because I get uncomfortable in social situations and don’t want to embarrass myself.
Imagine the worst-case scenario.
My worst-case scenario is sweating profusely and having a room full of people laughing and pointing at me because of it. Oh, and then I’d have a heart attack. Sound crazy? Think about something unusual you have convinced yourself to be absolutely true.
Move from fear to action.
Ask yourself, how can I take this fear and turn it into something I can do today—something that will most likely not cause the absolute worst-case scenario to happen?
We want to increase our odds here.
How can I break this down into an action that will help?
In my case, I could approach some friends at work and make conversation; nothing serious, just more than I usually do.
Or, maybe I could go home tonight and research one of the speakers at the conference to get to know them a little better.
If I’m feeling really brave, I could volunteer to present something small to a couple of coworkers or even to an all staff meeting.
Maybe I could sign up for an improv class to get comfortable in front of people.
Maybe I could just talk to someone I trust about how I’m really feeling.
The more I take action toward that future moment, the less pervasive my thoughts.
Think about the desire to become an expert at something. You can ruminate over and over again how you wish you could play the piano, but it won’t make a difference if you never take action and sign up for just one lesson.
If you can do something of value at your best today, there isn’t anything about the future you need to worry about.
You see, every single moment becomes another moment, and then becomes another.
I’ve found that if I can do one action today toward something I am anxious about, and do it my best, that is good enough for me.
If you take many small actions over time, when the big moment actually becomes the moment (no longer in the future), not only will it become easier to handle, but you’ll most like realize that it wasn’t worth all the stress.
I like to think of life in this way: I don’t know how it will all end, nor do I want to. I know that I can’t control my fate. I’m not perfect and I make mistakes. And that’s okay.
One thing I do know for sure, if I do my best today I can look forward to a future that’s much better than my worst fears about it.
About Shawn McKibben
Shawn McKibben is a personal development coach and founder of simplefellow.com, a website dedicated to teaching ambitious introverts how to be less socially awkward and have better conversations. He loves to teach, as well as learn from others, and has lived in four major US cities doing just that. Currently, Shawn is giving away his 21-page eBook, “An Introvert’s Guide to Engaging Conversation.”
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