Here’s a tough truth about anxiety:
There’s no magic coping skill or secret mantra that will eliminate anxiety.
That’s because some degree of anxiety is an inevitable and normal part of life.
And in fact, the belief that you should be able to totally control or eliminate your anxiety is probably one of the biggest reasons you continue to feel as anxious as you do.
That said, it is possible to significantly reduce the overall amount of anxiety you feel on a regular basis. And the trick is to deal with it before it even starts—or at least very early in the process.
But how can I deal with my anxiety before it starts?
In a word: Habits
Just like an athlete develops habits in training that help them deal with game-time stressors and uncertainties, you can cultivate healthy mental and emotional habits that help you deal with the inevitable stressors of life before they snowball into overwhelming amounts of worry and anxiety.
Here are seven of my favorite anxiety-buffering habits…
1. Acknowledge your worries and anxiety early
It’s a lot easier to deal with difficult things when they’re small than when they’re big…
- It’s a lot easier to pay off a $1,000 loan than a $50,000 one
- It’s a lot easier to lose 5 pounds than 30
- It’s a lot easier to deal with a misbehaving 3-year-old than a misbehaving 13-year-old
Well, the same principle applies to emotional difficulties like anxiety…
The earlier you acknowledge your anxiety the easier it will be to deal with it.
For example, suppose you find yourself one morning worrying about an argument you had with your spouse the evening before…
- You immediately brush it off and tell yourself that’s silly.
- An hour later, as you pull into work, you find yourself feeling a little nervous thinking about the argument again. So you tell yourself to stop being a worrywart and throw yourself into your work.
- At lunch, you notice that your shoulders are tense and your mind keeps trying to replay your argument from last night, so you distract yourself in social media for a while.
- Throughout the rest of the evening you keep noticing worries about the argument pop up and you keep avoiding them or distracting yourself.
- Finally, it’s 2:00 am and you can’t sleep because you keep worrying about the argument. You’re playing out all sorts of worst-case-scenario events in your head and your anxiety is through the roof—in part because you’re now also worried about not sleeping and how terrible you’re going to feel tomorrow.
Minor worries quickly snowball into avalanches of anxiety when ignored.
The reason is simple: when you run away from your anxiety, you’re telling your brain that it’s dangerous. As a result, you’re going to feel anxious about being anxious.
Instead, get in the habit of acknowledging your worries and anxiety early. Be honest with yourself that you’re worrying or feeling anxious. Validate those feelings and remind yourself that it’s okay to feel anxious even if it doesn’t feel good. Examine your anxieties with curiosity, not judgment.
You don’t have to wallow in them or have a therapy session with yourself every time you feel a little nervous. But a brief acknowledgment and little validation go a long way toward keeping your anxieties small and manageable.
“Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can. Allow. Embrace. Let yourself feel. Let yourself heal.”
― Vironika Tugaleva
2. Express your wants and needs assertively
If you get in the habit of acknowledging your anxiety early, you might learn something interesting:
Anxiety is often a sign of unmet needs.
- If you find yourself chronically worried about your relationship, it might be your mind’s way of telling you that you’re not getting your needs met and are overly-accommodating of your partner.
- If you routinely feel anxious at work, it might be your unconscious mind’s way of telling you that your current job is not a good fit with your preferences and values.
- If you find yourself habitually nervous about social interactions and conversations, it might be your mind’s way of telling you that you crave more intimacy and deep friendship in your life.
So here’s the question:
Instead of asking yourself How can I stop feeling so anxious? try asking yourself How can I start asking for what I really want?
Anxiety is often a signal telling you that you need to be more assertive in your life—to be bolder and more direct about asking for and going after what you really want.
Interestingly, in years of doing therapy with anxious people, I found that often the best way to help someone reduce their anxiety was to mostly ignore the anxiety itself, and instead, focus on being more assertive. And as soon as that happened, the anxiety started to fall on its own.
Remember: Often anxiety is just the messenger. Instead of yelling at the messenger, try reading the message first.
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
― Anais Nin
3. Get smart about your sleep
Everything is harder when you’re not sleeping well…
- It’s harder to lose weight.
- It’s harder to stay focused and productive.
- It’s harder to fight off infections.
- And it’s much harder to manage your emotions well, including anxiety.
Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Everyone knows sleep is important. And yet, it can be surprisingly hard to get better sleep… Why?
A big part of the reason is that sleep is one of those things where trying hard backfires and only makes the problem worse. In most areas of life, effort leads to good results. Study harder, get better grades. Lift harder, build more muscle.
But what happens when you try harder to sleep?
- What happens when you insist that your mind quiet down at night so that you can fall back to sleep?
- What happens when you spend all evening researching possible causes for your insomnia?
- What happens when you spend the hour before bed obsessively checking off items from your 31-point sleep hygiene checklist?
The harder you try to sleep, the worse your sleep becomes.
So, counterintuitively, the trick to getting better sleep (and less anxiety) is not trying so hard.
Here’s one small thing you can do to dramatically improve the quality of your sleep: Stop trying to fall asleep at the same time every night.
Your body is designed to sleep more or less depending on many factors throughout the day from physical exertion to emotional struggle. Some nights you might need 7 hours of sleep and some you might need 8.
But if you force your body to try and be sleepy when it’s not, what’s going to happen? You’re going to get frustrated and anxious about not sleeping, which is only going to make it harder to fall asleep!
If you want to improve your sleep, don’t get into bed until you’re actually sleepy (not just tired).
For more ideas on getting better sleep, some of these articles and podcasts might help →
“Be willing to let it be easy. You might be surprised.”
— Liz Gilbert
4. Expand your emotional vocabulary
If there’s a secret to managing anxiety well, this is it:
Anxiety isn’t the problem; it’s your relationship with anxiety that’s causing problems.
Everybody experiences some anxiety sometimes. It’s a normal human emotion that serves an important purpose: keeping us safe from threats or dangers:
- When your fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night and your anxiety surges, that’s a good thing—if there is a fire, you need to be able to escape fast.
- Or if you have to walk home through a dark alley late at night, your anxiety will help you stay alert and sensitive to possible dangers while you’re in this vulnerable position.
Always remember this:
Whether it feels good or not, your anxiety is just trying to help.
The trouble is that your brain sometimes gets confused about what’s actually dangerous vs what appears dangerous but isn’t…
- Imagining your spouse’s plane crashing feels terrifying. But just because you imagined it, doesn’t mean anyone is really in any danger.
- A coworker thinking you’re dumb might make you feel anxious, but your survival isn’t exactly at stake here, so the anxiety you feel in this situation is well-intentioned but misguided.
So what does all this have to do with expanding your emotional vocabulary?
Well, most people who struggle with anxiety have a tendency to see and feel anxiety everywhere…
- If a distant family member passes away unexpectedly, they immediately start worrying about whether they could pass away unexpectedly and that fear becomes their focus.
- If a partner makes an insensitive comment to you, you focus immediately on how scared you are of making it worse by saying something that might upset them more.
In other words, anxious people tend to ignore the full range of their emotional lives and focus almost exclusively on anxiety. But when you’re over-focused on anxiety, your brain starts to see anxiety itself as something dangerous. And as we discussed earlier, anxiety about anxiety just leads to more anxiety.
To counteract this tendency make it a point to name other non-anxiety-related emotions in your life.
- After a distant family member passes away, instead of jumping right to anxiety, take a moment to label your sadness and grief. You might even get more specific and note that there’s some regret in that sadness because you were never as close with that family member as you would have liked.
- If your partner makes an insensitive comment, instead of going right to anxiety, take a moment to name your own anger or frustration or maybe disappointment at their insensitivity.
The more you expand your emotional vocabulary and make room for the full range of emotions in your life, the less room anxiety will have to dominate.
”Just like a low resting heart rate is the byproduct of intense exercise, low anxiety is the byproduct of intense self-examination.”
— Naval Ravikant
5. Make time to worry on purpose
It sounds counterintuitive, but worrying on purpose is one of the best ways to worry less, and as a result, be less vulnerable to anxiety.
Here’s how it works:
- Our minds throw worries at us all the time.
- Understandably, we don’t like this so we try hard to stop worrying: we tell ourselves we shouldn’t worry, we distract ourselves with social media or TV, or we start arguing back with our worries and trying to point out how irrational they are.
- The problem is—as usual—what are you teaching your mind about worry?
- If you treat worry like a bad thing by trying to escape it, you’re teaching your mind that it’s a threat, which means more anxiety and worry!
The harder you run away from your worries, the stronger and more frequent they will become (and the more anxious you’ll feel as a result).
On the other hand, if you get in the habit of deliberately approaching your worries, you send the opposite signal to your brain: worries are annoying but not actually dangerous.
Over time this will decrease both the frequency and intensity of your worrying, and therefore, your anxiety.
So, what does that look like, exactly… approaching your worries?
A great little technique is something called scheduled worry:
- Schedule 10-15 minutes every day for “worry time.”
- During your worry time, write down every single worry you can think of. Don’t try to solve or analyze your worries, just list them out.
- If your mind throws a worry at you during non-worry time, gently remind yourself that you have a time for worry and will get to it then and re-focus on the task at hand.
Over time, this little practice desensitizes you to worry. And the less sensitive you are to worries, the less likely you will be to elaborate on them and generate all the anxiety that comes with it.
“There’s something incredibly honest about trees in winter, how they’re experts at letting things go.”
― Jeffrey McDaniel
6. Commit to some regular exercise
Research continues to pile up showing the benefits of regular exercise for anxiety.
And while I’m not going to go into all of the details here, I want to make a couple points about this topic that don’t get as much attention as they should.
1. Regular exercise improves self-efficacy
One of the biggest obstacles with anxiety is people’s belief that they can’t handle their anxiety. More specifically, they don’t believe that they can feel anxious without acting on that anxiety.
Of course, this is understandable if you’ve been living with anxiety for years without making much headway on it.
But the great thing about exercise is that it’s a relatively simple way that anyone can start to prove to themselves that they can do difficult things despite not feeling like it. And luckily, self-efficacy seems to generalize pretty well—meaning as you build it with exercise, it should translate to working on your anxiety.
To manage anxiety well, you must believe that you can feel uncomfortable and still get on with your goals anyway. Consistent exercise is one of the best ways to build up that belief.
2. Regular exercise helps you sleep better
Like we discussed earlier, one of the biggest reasons people struggle to manage their anxiety early and let it balloon into an unmanageable size is that all emotion regulation is harder when you’re not sleeping well.
And while there are a lot of reasons why people struggle with their sleep, one of the most underappreciated is this: their sleep drive is low. Sleep drive is your body’s innate need for sleep. And contrary to what you hear in the media, not everybody needs eight hours of sleep every night. In fact, your body’s sleep system is designed to be flexible and adjust to your life: If you spend all day chopping firewood or chasing toddlers, your body is going to need more sleep than if you watched Netflix all day.
The point is, you can harness this effect by being more physically active during the day… When you start exercising regularly, your sleep drive increases, which makes it easier to fall asleep and sleep deeply throughout the night. As a result, not only will you feel more rested and energized each day, but you’ll also be better able to regulate difficult emotions like anxiety whenever they arise.
7. Set and enforce your boundaries
We talked earlier about the importance of expressing your wants and needs assertively and how much anxiety is the result of being overly passive and accommodating of other people.
Well, the flip side of this effect is just as important:
A lot of anxiety comes from the unwillingness to set boundaries and say no to other people’s requests.
Boundaries are ultimately about self-respect. If you’re constantly putting off your own goals, aspirations, and values to accommodate other people, is it any surprise that you have low self-respect? I mean, would you respect someone else who never stuck up for what they needed and always caved in order to go along with what other people wanted? Of course not!
So, if you’re habitually giving in to other people’s requests at the expense of your own, your confidence and self-respect are going to be poor. And if your confidence and self-respect are that low all the time, is it any surprise that you…
- Second-guess yourself with major decisions and get anxious as a result?
- Set goals but worry and feel anxious that you won’t be able to achieve them?
- Constantly compare yourself to other people and feel anxious and inadequate as a result?
On the other hand, difficult as it can feel in the moment, setting boundaries and saying no in order to stand up for your own wants and needs leads to confidence and self-respect long-term. And the higher your confidence and self-respect, the easier it will be to…
- Quickly dismiss second-guessing thoughts and be decisive.
- Follow through on your goals and aspirations despite feeling worried about the outcomes.
- Stay focused on your own values and aspirations instead of adopting other people’s for your own.
All You Need to Know
You can significantly reduce the amount of anxiety you live with by building healthy habits that buffer you from it in the first place:
- Acknowledge your worries and anxiety early
- Express your wants and needs assertively
- Get better sleep
- Expand your emotional vocabulary
- Make time to worry on purpose
- Get regular exercise
- Set more boundaries (and stick to them!)
Want to work with me?
Several times a year, I teach a six-week course called Mood Mastery to a small group of motivated students. To learn more, visit the course website here →