Anxiety can feel like a swarm of flies, buzzing inside your head.
You’re stuck in traffic. You’re going to miss your flight, and the game-changing meeting at the other end of it. Your presentation is poorly executed; you’re not going to win the new client. There goes the promotion, and maybe worse. You’re a neglectful parent, an unsupportive spouse. You spend too much time at work, and still it’s not enough. You have an impossible deadline to meet. And, even worse, a company dinner. Is there no way out of that? There’s a haggard image in the mirror. Haggard and fat. You eat wrong, sleep wrong, don’t get enough exercise. And are you saving enough for retirement?
If only thoughts like these could be swatted away like so many pesky insects. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that in any given twelve month period, over 18% of adult Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder, one of the most common forms of psychological illness. Even for those whose anxiety doesn’t rise to the level of a “disorder,” anxious thoughts can become unwelcome, nearly constant companions.
Of course, anxiety isn’t always bad — sometimes it’s a whetstone, honing the sharper edge we need to perform well and successfully achieve our goals. But disorder sufferers should seek professional assistance, and everyone can benefit from a few simple techniques that help keep anxiety at a manageable, even productive level. When I work with coaching clients, I offer these suggestions as a way to start:
Impose structure. We are uncomfortable — yes, anxious — operating in a void. Too much disorganized space, including mental space, can feel oddly oppressive. So bring some order to the chaos: make a list. Write down what you need to do, and a plan to get it done. Tackle the distasteful tasks first and get them over with – procrastinating will only increase your anxiety. If your problem is not too much to do, but too little (which can be worse, in its way), seek out additional activities to stay busy and avoid brooding.
Reduce or eliminate physical stressors. The same behaviors that are generally good for our health also help ward off or control anxiety. Establish a routine for adequate sleep. Drink plenty of water. Reduce or eliminate caffeine and alcohol consumption, both known anxiety aggravators. Eat well. The Mayo Clinic, among other top health providers, publishes excellent suggestions for dietary practices that can help you keep internal peace. Identify your go-to self-medications:sugar, pizza, chocolate, Diet Coke, and make an effort to avoid them when anxiety hovers on the horizon. Meditation and deep-breathing exercises can also provide relief.
Add exercise to your routine. You may not be a world-class athlete, but exercise is an aid to peak mental performance for everyone, and provides resistance to psychological distress. “Science has also provided some evidence that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress. In one study, researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25% less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.” Taking a walk, observing the world outside your office, and breathing some fresh air makes a great midday stress reliever.
Pace yourself. It’s okay to slow down sometimes. There is wisdom in the ancient tale of the Tortoise and the Hare, and old clichés like “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” Take a break. Nobody can do everything, so feel liberated to say no to demands on your time or energy that you know you can’t satisfy without undue anxiety. Say yes to activities that help you relax: a meal with people you love, a leisurely shower, listening to music, reading a book. We’re not just working to advance our careers; we’re trying to advance the quality of our lives. Think of this as interval training – like an elite athlete using cycles of work and recovery to get stronger, you can alternate hard work with rest to become more productive and resilient.
And perhaps most importantly, remember that while techniques and structures like these can help us organize for accomplishment, they don’t give us control over outcomes. Coping with anxiety requires that we give up illusions that we can always be in charge. “Trying to control life isn’t natural, and bracing yourself for potential danger creates both psychological and physiological stress, which only depletes us and leads to anxiety,” says clinical psychologist, Dr. Joseph Luciani, author of Self-Coaching: The Powerful Program to Beat Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety of one sort or another will likely be buzzing around our minds most of our days. But a single fly is preferable to a swarm. A few techniques like these can help reduce the buzzing in our heads to white noise.
This post originally published at Harvard Business Review.