Thriving Together Series: Managing Anxiety

managing anxiety

By: James E. Maddux, Ph.D, CWB Senior Scholar

“I have spent most of my time worrying about things that have never actually happened.” –

Mark Twain

Almost everyone worries about something nearly every day. Many people spend a good deal of the day worrying about bad things that might happen to them that day or in the future. Occasional anxiety is an inescapable part of being alive. You probably can’t eliminate anxiety from your life , but you can learn to manage it  more effectively.

To learn to manage anxiety more effectively, it helps to understand what it is, how it develops – and what can make it worse. Most scientists who study anxiety view it as consisting of three interacting components: (1) thoughts (sometime called cognitions), (2) feelings (bodily sensations), and (3) behaviors.

The thoughts that characterize anxiety consist of (1) predicting that something bad is likely to happen to you and (2) predicting that you won’t be able to deal with if effectively if it does happen. This is what most people mean when they say they are worrying about something.

The major behavioral component of anxiety is avoidance. When you feel anxious about an anticipated situation, you usually feel a desire to avoid it. If your anxiety is powerful enough, you may actually avoid the situation (that first date, that job interview, giving that required talk in class) even though you know that avoiding it is probably going to interfere with accomplishing a goal that is important to you. Avoidance can make the problem worse in three ways.  First, although you may feel a sense of relief immediately after making the decision to avoid a situation about which you are anxious – and actually avoiding it – you are very likely to soon feel bad about yourself for having avoided it because you know it was in your best interests to go ahead and face the situation. Second, when you avoid a situation about which you are anxious, you deprive yourself of an opportunity to learn how to cope with it more effectively. Third, because avoidance initially gives you a sense of relief from your anxiety, you get a brief reward for avoiding, thus increasing the probability that you will avoid that situation (and similar situations) again in the future. For these reasons, avoidance, over time, can create a vicious cycle that not only does not solve the problem but actually can make the problem worse.

Well-Being Practices for Managing Anxiety

What does this tell us about how to manage anxiety better?

First, when are you feeling anxious thinking about a situation (or in the situation), stop and examine your thoughts, particularly what predictions you are making about the bad things that might happen in that situation and about your ability (or inability) to deal with those things. Actively challenge those thoughts by saying to yourself, out loud if possible,: “Wait, the odds of this thing I am worrying about actually happening are probably not as high as I think they are.” and “Even if this thing does happen, here are some actions I can take  to deal with it.”

Second, take a few slow deep breaths to help slow down your racing heart and otherwise calm down the unpleasant sensations in the body (such as shaky hands or a shaky voice) that can make it difficult for you to think clearly about the situation.

Third, remind yourself that (1) because the situation is probably linked to a goal that is important to you, facing it is in your immediate and long-term self-interest and (2) avoiding is likely to make things worse over time.

Of course, learning to prevent or minimize anxiety in the long term can also be helpful.  Here are a few simple suggestions.

  • Distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s important. Learn to make the distinction that author Steven Covey makes between tasks s that are urgent and things that are important. Often the tasks that feel urgent and scream for our attention and cause us anxiety are not really all that important after all.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation. Even 10 minutes a day (as I do) can lower your anxiety, clear your minds of troublesome thoughts, and help you live more in the present moment rather than reliving the past (especially past mistakes) and worrying about the future. This can help you lower your baseline level of anxiety over the long run. Many meditation apps are available, but I have found the app “Calm” to be especially helpful. The daily sessions are only about 10 minutes long, so it’s easy to fit them into a busy day.
  • Exercise. Considerable scientific research has shown that exercise can lower anxiety in the short run and in the long run. Exercise can not only help us manage immediate feelings of anxiety, but a recent study from Sweden suggests that it can help prevent anxiety problems well into future life. If you can exercise outdoors and in nature, so much the better.
  • Sleep. Sleep restores both a tired body and a tired, worried mind. If you are sleep-deprived, like most people say they are, then your mind and body are more vulnerable to overreacting when the inevitable small trials of daily life occur.
  • Write it down. Keep a pad of paper and a pen on your bedside table. If you’re like me and frequently wake up at 3 a.m. with a thought about something you need to do and are worried about forgetting about it, write it down. It’s a great way to put it temporarily out of your mind and get back to sleep.
  • Go online or get an app. Online anxiety intervention programs and apps can also be effective – in some cases almost as effective as face-to-face counseling or psychotherapy.  One well-researched online anxiety-management program developed at the University of Virginia is called MindTrails and is available free. In addition, One Mind Psyberguide provides information about well-tested apps for  better managing anxiety and other mental health issues.
  • Read a good book. Several scientists who study anxiety have written self-help books about managing anxiety better for the general public. One that I recommend is The Anxiety and Worry Workbook: The Cognitive-Behavioral Solution by David Clark and Aaron Beck. A useful book based on Eastern philosophy is The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan Watts.
  • See a therapist. Counseling or psychotherapy can be helpful if these other strategies don’t seem to work for you. A large body of research suggests that the specific techniques in what is called cognitive-behavioral therapy can be very effective in helping people manage anxiety.

None of these strategies – or even all of them put together – are going to eliminate anxiety and worry from your life.  But that’s not the goal. The goal, instead, is to improve your ability to better manage and control anxiety instead of allowing anxiety to manage and control you and your life.

Additional Resources

The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You by Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D. (Three Rivers Press, 2005). Written by a scientist and practitioner specializing in anxiety.

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. (Pocket Books). First published in 1944, this pioneering self-help book remains one of the most popular (over 6 million copies sold) and most practical ever written.

A Short Mindfulness Exercise for Anxiety by Robert Hindman, Ph.D. of the Aaron Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy.  A brief (11 minute) explanation of how we make ourselves anxious and some practical tips for managing anxiety.

Write one of these Thriving Together Series features! We’re looking for contributions on all topics related to well-being. Read other Thriving Together Series articles here and contact us at cwb@gmu.edu for guidelines. Thank you for helping our Mason community thrive together online!