How To Function With Anxiety: Learning to Do While Anxious
I was supposed to start writing this blog before the new year. Then a month went by and I still hadn’t done it. And then another month went by…
To be fair, I did think about writing it quite often. I’d even say I’ve spent at least several hours thinking about writing it. Some of those might even be categorized as sort of mentally preparing for the task–thinking about what points I’d like to hit and how I’d like to organize it. But to be honest, a lot of it was just pure anxiety. How I felt when I thought about starting the task, how my whole career path as a therapist might have been a mistake because I can’t seem to even write one simple piece of content. I couldn’t even get myself to start it! How am I supposed to help others work through their anxiety if I can’t work through mine…
I had to do what I always tell others to do. And these things are always easier said than done. My anxiety wasn’t going to just suddenly disappear one day, and I couldn’t keep waiting until I felt motivated and hoped that that surpassed the anxiety, either. I had no deadline–which might sound lovely except that it gave me an infinite amount of time to think and stew and avoid and question my whole sense of self.
And here I am, sitting here feeling anxious as I write this. But honestly, the anxiety already feels less the more words I type. Because even though I’m not thrilled with every word I type and feel the urge to keep starting over, I know that it’s easier to edit and redraft than it is to create something from nothing or stare at a blank page. I’ve started and that means it will only get better.
So how do we do while anxious? It seems sort of like a “catch-22”, I know. How can I conquer my anxiety through doing things despite being anxious, when my anxiety seems quite confident that I can’t do it.
Let’s talk about it:
Anxiety is just a feeling.
As NAMI puts it so perfectly “Emotions just are”. Each emotion has a purpose–they evolved to help us survive. Of course, our environment has changed since we developed emotions, so our bodily triggered response doesn’t always feel appropriate to our context.
There are lots of reasons why we might feel anxious, but most often we experience it when we are uncertain about something or are noticing that we don’t have full control over a situation. It often triggers feelings of hypervigilance and worry. We scan our environment and can feel distracted or fidgety. This is because our bodies and brains are telling us to scan for potential danger.
The more unknowns that are involved and the less control we may feel in the moment, the more anxious we will usually feel. But unknowns and a lack of control aren’t necessarily a problem–they’re just very uncomfortable for us.
Our brain is always trying to make sense of everything around us, and when it doesn’t have all of the facts in order to do that, it triggers the release of chemicals like adrenaline that cause the feeling we experience as anxiety. Because emotions aren’t all in our heads, they’re in our bodies in a real, physiological way. But you know what else this can feel like? Excitement.
So what determines whether we experience this physiological state as anxiety or excitement? For the most part, this is determined by the narrative we put around it. There are clear-cut situations determined by context where this is not really up for debate–for example, if you’re being chased by a bear, what you’ll experience is fear–a heightened version of anxiety–and in this situation, the feeling serves a very real purpose: to get you to run away as fast as you can.
Now, fortunately, we aren’t chased by bears so often these days. So why do I feel like I imagine I’d feel if I was being chased by a bear when I open up a word document to start writing something?
Rather than experiencing all of the possibilities of what I could write as exciting, the story I’m telling myself is that I’m going to end up doing it wrong (or even worse- that I can’t even imagine just how I’ll manage to screw it up yet!). Or perhaps I’ll continue down the same path I’ve been for the last couple of months, that I won’t even be able to try anything because I feel paralyzed.
Making myself more aware of what my narrative is, I can make more sense of what I’m feeling. Ok, I’m feeling anxious because this piece matters to me, and I want to do a good job–that makes sense because there are so many possible ways to write this and I’m not sure how to handle all of what I want to accomplish at once. So how can I make myself feel more comfortable getting started, and honor all of the hopes I have for it?
As I said before, anxiety increases with unknowns and a lack of control. If there are ways that you can regain some sense of control or find out more information, taking those steps can help reduce the intensity of the anxiety.
An example of this might be going through an assignment sheet in detail and taking notes on the parts that you don’t understand. You can ask for clarification on these from your professor, which might increase your sense of control (confidence) in completing the assignment.
This is also why writers will recommend completing an outline or deciding on your main thesis points before starting. It can help keep you on task while you write, but it can also aid in giving you the structure and confidence you need to begin the task.
Now, if these even seem too much to handle, you can start even smaller. Keep breaking down the task into smaller and smaller chunks until it feels manageable to take the first chunk. Maybe this is laying out to yourself what you would have to do if you started the assignment. “Ok, I would have to get up off the couch and stand. Then I would have to walk over to my backpack, unzip it, and take out the folder with the assignment sheet. Then I would have to read that assignment sheet…”
Don’t wait for the feeling to pass.
If you plan to wait until you no longer feel anxious about the task to start, you might have guessed that day likely will never come. Because by doing nothing, you are not reducing the unknowns at all, and you’re actually lessening your sense of control the longer you put off the task. We often then start telling ourselves stories like “I haven’t done this because I’m lazy” or “I’m just not smart enough to do it”, and these can spiral out of control (no pun intended) until we feel like we have no control or certainty about ourselves, let alone our ability to do this task.
The longer we wait, the more anxiety has room to grow and run the show. And the sooner we start (even if it’s just the smallest chunk of the task)–the sooner we tell ourselves the story that we can do this–one itty-bitty, tiny step at a time.
Feeling anxious is not abnormal or inherently a problem–particularly if you can connect it to something specific. Occasionally feeling anxious is a normal part of life (and noticing it more often around stressful times such as college or other major transitions is also normal!) If you feel that the anxiety is interfering with your normal daily activities or causing significant distress, and think it may be an anxiety disorder, you should seek out the help of a trained therapist for an assessment and to get help with managing your symptoms.
I offer individual online therapy for anxiety disorders, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety issues and am trained to provide mindfulness-based stress reduction. Mindfulness techniques can help you learn how to manage anxiety and stress through creating more of an understanding of the emotions within the body.
If you’re a college student looking for more support in coping with anxiety or how to get through life while anxious, consider checking out my new Anxiety Support Group for College Students. You’re not alone–as much as it might feel that way.
I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who enjoys working with anxiety, college students, expats, women’s issues, and insomnia through a CBT-I lens. I work with clients in the United Kingdom, United States, or elsewhere in the world. So, if you’re looking for a counselor in Chicago (or almost anywhere in the United States or the world) and are interested in learning more about how I could help you, please don’t hesitate to contact me.