After dealing with anxiety for many years, the most crucial thing I’ve learned is that you can’t just let it win.
My wife sometimes describes me as “a warrior.” It’s not something I find easy to believe! However, on those rare occasions when I do allow myself to hear a compliment, I realise just how much I do – every single day – to lead a “normal” life, despite having a brain that likes to rebel.
With that in mind, here are ten things I do to prevent anxiety being the boss of me. I hope these strategies help you ensure that anxiety is only a small part of your identity.
1. Ensure you Do the Things you Want
If I want to go to a shopping mall, on holiday, or to the theatre, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anxiety stop me.
The key here is identifying the things you actually do want to do, so that you put your energy into them, and not into other things. This is because doing, well, anything, can be incredibly draining when you have anxiety!
I’ve had panic attacks in theatres and shopping malls, but I also really enjoy those places on a good day. Similarly, while airports and long journeys are immensely stressful for those of us with anxiety, the holidays themselves are hugely important. Relaxed time away from home can quieten the ever-chattering mind, and dealing with foreign languages and cultural differences provides a confidence-boost that lasts long after you touch down back at home.
As such, I make sure I throw a LOT of effort at the things I truly want to do.
2. Avoid Agreeing to Things you Don’t Want!
Next we have the flipside, which is essentially the art of saying “no.”
After years of saying “yes” to everything and then trying to extricate myself from social engagements at the last minute, I’ve learned it’s much easier just to decline at the earliest opportunity.
If you’re invited to something that you know deep down you won’t enjoy, it’s wise just to make your excuses and turn it down straight away. You then avoid the stress of admitting you’re not going to go, or working out how to say “no” tactfully. Looking back, I must have wasted weeks of my life doing these things.
And, if you think about it, nobody gets annoyed with the first people to turn down an invitation – it’s just accepted. It’s the people who change plans at the last minute who others tend to moan about.
It’s worth adding here that those of us with anxiety often do like the general idea of an event, then end up turning it down because it all seems a bit too much closer to the time. The key here is to develop the knack of identifying those “priority” events that you simply don’t want to miss, then freeing up energy by avoiding less important engagements.
3. Consider Working from Home
Millions of us now work from home at least some of the time. Working in this way can be of huge benefit for people with anxiety, eliminating stressful commuting and social pressures.
That said, as I’ve previously discussed in this article on social anxiety, it’s not a panacea. At one extreme, home working can be a way to hide away from the world, making things worse and not better.
Despite this, as a general rule it’s well worth exploring flexible-working possibilities if you have anxiety. The more you can free up your resources for achieving the things you most want (as above!), the more you can work around your anxiety and live a fulfilling life.
4. Use Time and Rituals
When I go on holiday, everything is arranged with military precision. We’re talking portable phone chargers, backup medication in my checked baggage, and travel schedules that build in plenty of margin for delays and error.
I’ll often pay extra to get flights at a time I know will be less provoking for my anxiety, or stay at an airport hotel the day before departure. Like many people with anxiety, rising early and hustling out of the door is not my strong point, so I go out of my way to avoid it.
The same applies to everything from work travel and social events. Preparation is everything, and while it’s time consuming and not ideal, it beats turning things down and not getting to enjoy them.
5. Constantly Learn About Anxiety
Understanding the mechanics and neurochemistry of anxiety can prove really helpful in staying on top of it. As just one example, I’ve learned that a panic attack can often occur – out of the blue – in a place where you’ve had one before. This is entirely because the animalistic part of the brain has learned to go into “flight or fight” in that location.
Simply knowing this can make it easier to step back from panic when it does start to build. I once started to panic, literally from out of nowhere, when travelling along a particular stretch of road. I realised after a couple of minutes that it was the road that led to the hospital where my second child was born! Once you start to put these things together, it becomes easier to rationalise.
6. Learn your Patterns
I’ve already mentioned that early, hectic mornings aren’t my strong point, but there are plenty of other patterns you can learn.
For example, when I’m heading into a bad patch, mental health wise, I become extremely noise sensitive. My whole life becomes one big “jump scare!” When it happens, I now know it’s time to step back, try to get some rest, and – most significantly – stop overdoing it.
Identifying your own patterns and – crucially – responding to them, can be really helpful for anxiety.
7. Discuss your Reality
I’m a huge advocate for mental health awareness, and very open about anxiety. However, that doesn’t mean I constantly discuss it.
What I DO do is make sure the people that truly matter, and the people who are most often around, understand my limitations. As a recent example, before attending a political meeting with a friend recently, I briefly told him that I can struggle if I’m not sitting on the end of a row with an easy exit.
Whether you have issues with being closed in, sitting in the back of a car, or visiting over-crowded places, the people who care about you will usually make allowances. If you think about it, it’s much easier for them to deal with that than an unexpected anxiety attack.
8. Allow for Downtime
While I can enjoy a wedding or a party as much as the next person, I think it’s fair to say that the “social hangover” is a very real thing for people with anxiety. Often we need to shut ourselves away with light-hearted TV and lots of naps after any intense social interaction.
This is completely normal – not just for anxiety-sufferers, but for Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) and introverts too (although the three things often go hand in hand!)
The key thing here is to anticipate this need, prepare for it, and not feel guilty about it. Admittedly I still find it hard, but if I’ve done a weekend of driving with two small children, zooming around meals, drinks and family meet-ups, I do my utmost to remember that it IS OK to go and have a lie down when I get home.
9. Keep the Exercise Up
To be honest, I find it a bit annoying that almost every article on mental health seems to emphasise the importance of physical exercise. Unfortunately it’s true.
Even a walk around the block can burn off nervous energy, so it’s worth making time for. It’s as simple as that.
10. Drop Energy-Sapping People
Anxiety and self-image are intrinsically linked, as far as I’m concerned. One of my biggest regrets is wasting so much time, over the years, on people who weren’t doing me any good: The people who were constantly negative and not encouraging, and the jokers who take pleasure in insults disguised as “banter.”
A Maya Angelou quote is very relevant here: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” When you have anxiety, it’s hard enough dealing with your own nonsense – so the last thing you need it other people’s!
Ben Taylor is a UK-based writer, entrepreneur and anxiety sufferer. He’s passionate about mental health awareness, particularly around males talking openly about their afflictions. He’s the founder of www.homeworkingclub.com, a popular portal for home workers, and also coaches aspiring bloggers at www.writeblogearn.com.