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Four Things You Can Do When You Are Anxious

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Jesus says, “Do not worry.” It’s good advice. But it’s hard to follow. If you could just will yourself to do it, you would. Maybe you can.  If so, this post is not for you.

Seth Godin says anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is tough enough. Anxiety gets in the way.

The key to effective leadership is the ability to be a non-anxious presence. And the key to being a non-anxious presence is self-differentiation. This is the ability to clarify and articulate your own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures.

My recent posts on how to take an emotional stand went into this in depth. A big part of this is doing your own work. That is, looking at your own family of origin to understand which relationships cause you anxiety. Reworking those relationships will help you to be a non-anxious presence in other anxiety-producing situations.

But, doing your own work is a lifelong task. What can you do now? Here are four proven approaches you can try.

One: Pray

Even if you are in the midst of an anxious situation, such as getting yelled at or being put on the spot, you can pray. There is nothing wrong with pausing. This is what thoughtful people do naturally. While you’re pausing, pray.

It could be as simple as, “Lord, help me.”

Or, “Lord, help me to see this situation as you do.”

Or, “Lord, give me the words to say in this moment.”

I’m sure you can think of other helpful variations. Find what works for you.Prayer will calm you and will, indeed, help you know what to say. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see the other person as a child of God. This is always a good thing.

Prayer will calm you. It will help you know what to say and do, either in the moment or as you move forward. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see others as children of God. This is always a good thing.

Two: Breathe Deeply

While you are praying, start breathing deeply.

This seems basic, but it works. This Forbes article shows how deep breathing is good for the brain. It credits the western understanding of the practice to Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1970’s book, The Relaxation Response. Many have known the benefits of what Benson calls controlled breathing, but it I didn’t discover until 40 years after his book. I should have known better, since my own Japanese roots are steeped in the eastern practice of deep breathing.

The Forbes article describes controlled breathing this way:

“The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.”

Deep breathing releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that increases focus and calmness, as well as decreases anxiety.

So, whether you are thinking about a difficult situation or you are faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the first thing you should do is breathe deeply. If you practice this during meditation, you’ll get good enough to do it even when someone is yelling at you.

Three: Reframe the Situation

There is no biochemical difference in your brain between anxiety and excitement. Both are considered emotional states of arousal and both are driven by the release of a hormone called norepinephrine. The only difference is one is negative and one is positive.

So, while you are breathing deeply, try a technique called Anxious Reappraisal, as cited in this article from The Atlantic. Instead of trying to calm down, tell yourself you are excited.

When you are frantically scrambling to host 25 guests at your house say, “I’m excited to have all these people over because they mean a lot to me.”

Or when you’re getting ready to go into a meeting that you know will get tense say, “I’m excited to hear what others have to tell me, even if it’s negative, so I can use it to get better at what I do.”

This seems stupid, but it works. Study after study has shown that reframing the situation from anxiety to excitement improves performance in the anxiety-producing situation.

Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor, is the author of several of these studies. According to The Atlantic article, “The way this works, Brooks said, is by putting people in an ‘opportunity mindset,’ with a focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well, as opposed to a  “threat mindset,” which dwells on all the consequences of performing poorly.

If, as Seth Godin says, anxiety is experiencing failure in advance, then excitement is experiencing success in advance. It’s your choice.

Four: Focus on the Present

In Matthew 6, when Jesus says “Do not worry,” the Greek word for worry is best translated anxiety. Its literal meaning is to be divided and the figurative meaning is to go to pieces or be pulled apart.

My take on this is, when you are anxious, your mind is being pulled apart. It’s trying to stay in the present, but it’s being pulled into a future that you fear. You are experiencing failure in advance.

While you’re breathing deeply and after you have told yourself you are excited. Focus on the present. Instead of stressing about something that you can do nothing about, practice mindfulness. You can focus on all the details of your current surroundings. Or you can focus on your breathing, combining two anxiety reducing practices into one. It’s hard for your mind to pulled into experiencing failure in advance when it’s firmly planted in present.

Anxiety is hard to avoid, but you can handle it more effectively. It just takes practice. Give it a try.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you respond?

How can you use these practices to handle anxiety better?

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