3 Simple Steps We Often Ignore to Reduce Anxiety
Disappointment and anxiety are real emotions. They trap us in endless loops of regret and stress. We get flung around helplessly like cows in cyclones in Hollywood movies.
But we don’t have to remain powerless in their grasp. We can take simple steps to reduce the effects of anxiety and disappointment, and increase our bandwidth to focus on meaningful goals. The first step among these is to understand why these emotions occur.
Disappointment is the painful gap between what you expect to happen and what actually happens. If you expected to land that job or promotion, or to ace the exam, but the results aren’t what you imagined, you experience disappointment. The larger the gap, the more disappointed you feel.
Meanwhile, anxiety stems from how badly you want an outcome to occur. The more you worry about the outcome, the higher your anxiety is, and it can severely affect your performance. In a study, highly anxious children’s test scores were up to two years behind those of their less anxious peers. In another example, an adult stage actor’s doctor told him to quit acting because his heart couldn’t handle the stress from stage fright.
You might’ve noticed that both these emotions occur when we try to control outcomes. That’s like commanding water to flow in a particular direction. We cannot control outcomes. Yet, we can influence them by taking simple actions and in the process, reduce anxiety. These steps are simple enough for you to say, “I already know this.” But that doesn’t mean they’re easy.
(Note: This post isn’t fix-it advice for people who need medication. I’m not a doctor, nor do I try to be one on the internet. If doctors have prescribed medicines for you, please follow their advice. However, you can also follow the steps mentioned below to reduce anxiety, regardless of its level.)
1. Take timely action.
Every activity you take for your body’s well-being has an allotted time. You eat at specific times, rest when you feel tired, and sleep for specific hours. Imagine how your body would respond if you kept eating when it’s time to sleep or ran a marathon when you felt physically drained.
Likewise, any activity you carry out for work has an allotted time. Work is the effort put in to achieve a goal, like giving a presentation, completing a class project, taking a test, or getting in shape. Imagine how your mind would respond if you kept procrastinating by checking emails, scrolling social media, or watching Netflix instead of working on tasks that lead you towards these goals.
The impending tasks will keep running in your subconscious mind, which will keep reminding you that you’re not doing what has to be done. The more this cycle repeats itself, the more anxious you feel. Ultimately, you land in a state of constant panic and find it impossible to even focus on basic tasks.
Preparing for your presentation or test is boring. But it’s also your biggest, most important task at the moment. Mark Twain called such a task a “frog,” and suggested eating it as the first thing to do in your day. This lets you go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that the worst is behind you. Plus, the satisfaction of completing the task lets you enjoy the rest of your day.
I sometimes drag my feet while publishing a podcast episode. I have to edit and upload the episode, write the description, shownotes, highlights, and transcripts. My mind rebels, searching for something more fun instead. The more fun I have, the longer I take to publish the episode and the more anxious I feel.
To address this challenge, I turn the mind’s craving for fun into a reward. Once I eat my frogs, which are no more than three each day, I’m free to browse social media, watch Netflix, or simply do nothing.
Do what you must when you must do it. You won’t just feel less anxious; you’ll also feel happier.
But merely working on a task isn’t enough. It has to get you closer to your goal. For this, you should first have a clear idea about what your goal is.
2. Assess goals before you begin.
Have you ever felt anxious despite working on an important task? You pulled out your tools and chipped away for hours, even days. Yet, you couldn’t stop the feeling of anxiety gnawing away at your insides.
This often occurs when you don’t know whether the work will help you get across the finish line. You don’t know whether your bosses will appreciate the presentation, whether your professor will like the project, or whether you’ll score well on the test. You feel underprepared despite working hard.
The anxiety forces your mind to make incorrect decisions about what to focus on and what to fear. It also makes your mind turn blank when you give your presentation or exam. A better approach is to articulate your goal and plan out the actions that will help you achieve it.
For your presentation, the goal is to give your bosses all the relevant information they need. So, begin your work by creating an outline and collecting feedback from them to check whether you’re on the right track. For your test, the goal is to score maximum marks. So check out question papers from previous years and ask your professor which topics she thinks are important before you begin studying.
Working hard without knowing your goal is futile. Directing your effort towards specific tasks that yield high returns is smart work. Take action, collect feedback, and get faster at tasks that move the needle. This cycle doesn’t just make you feel less anxious; it also helps you improve each day.
But constantly being in on-mode makes Jack and Jane dull children. It also spikes up their anxiety. That’s why resting is integral to your schedule if you want to reduce anxiety.
3. Schedule pockets of rest.
In the hustle culture, working 24/7 is worn like a badge. To the extent that people even include being able to work at any time as a skill in their résumés. Research has shown that such behavior is harmful because it increases the average activity of beta waves in the brain—those associated with stress.
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away” may be good advice for rock stars, but horrible advice for the rest of us. The cost of switching your attention between tasks at the drop of a hat or working when you’re exhausted is too high for the brain. In the long term, this stress leads to chronic ailments or even catastrophe.
“People who say they work 80-hour weeks, or even 120-hour weeks, often are just status signaling. It’s showing off. Nobody really works 80 to 120 hours a week at high output, with mental clarity. Your brain breaks down. You won’t have good ideas.” — Naval Ravikant
A better approach is to pace yourself so that you neither burn out nor fade away. Work hard when you feel inspired, then rest. Breaks, even tiny ones, increase levels of frontal alpha asymmetry in your brain. Such movements help your brain rejuvenate faster. You can engage better with your work, regulate your emotions, and exercise self-control. You also strengthen your sense of competence and open up to challenges instead of getting anxious while facing them.
Schedule pockets of whitespace in your day. These could be as low as 10 minutes of meditation between meetings and tasks. Other whitespace examples include taking walks in nature without wearing earphones, reading fiction, and turning off your devices after 9 PM.
Downtime is nourishment for your brain. The more you care for your mind and body, the longer you can enjoy running the marathon that is life.
Anxiety often occurs when we waste our energy worrying about outcomes. If we divert this energy towards decisive action, we can take control of our lives and reduce anxiety as a result.
Three simple actions to achieve this are:
- Do what should be done when it should be done. Timely action on important tasks makes you feel calmer because the toughest part of the day is done with.
- Take stock of your goals. When you have a clear idea about where you want to go, you can take one step after another without thrashing your hands and feet.
- Schedule pockets of rest in your day. Engage in focused work, then rest to let your brain recover. Rinse, repeat.
The results may still not match your expectations, but you’ll feel confident enough to try again. With each try, you’ll get closer to the finish line and evolve as a person.
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