Learn how to stop feeling anxious so you can become more productive and successful.
Because the present is all we have, every precious second and nano-second is ours to do with it what we want. However, that only happens when we reside in the now mentally, and exert control over our thoughts and feelings.
Being more present is a good two-for-one deal in that it both helps decrease anxiety and increase pleasure.
Here are six ways to make you less anxious
1.) Check in with yourself often
Several times during the day no matter what’s going on, get in the habit of asking yourself, “How am I feeling?” Hopefully the answer will be that you’re doing just fine.
The point of this inquiry is to ground you in the now. My guess is that frequently when you ask this question, you’ll be pulling yourself back to the present from thinking about the past or future—worrying about that pay raise discussion you’re scheduled to have with your boss, feeling anxious about a blind date or upcoming presentation, or ruminating about the argument you had with your partner earlier in the day or the fender-bender you had last week.
The truth is that much of the time we are doing okay emotionally. Life in most moments may not be thrilling or grand, but it’s usually not the pits either.
Even when we’re doing tasks we dislike or are not feeling particularly well, we can always find ways to feel better. We do this by simply paying attention to what is going well for us.
The presentation or date may turn out terribly, but now can still be pretty okay if you let it be. The morning’s argument with your partner or last week’s fender bender may have repercussions down the road, but right this moment, your life is likely running smoothly.
2.) Recognize the purpose of anxiety
Anxiety is rooted in a perception of a physical or emotional threat to self. The key word here is perception. If you’re going to a party you’ve been dying to attend for ages, you’ll feel differently about it than if your partner is dragging you to this same party which you’ve been dreading going to for months.
Anxiety is an evolutionary inner experience which helps us survive. It has no other function. When it works optimally, it keeps us alive and thriving. When it doesn’t, it shoves us mentally into the future and out of the physical present.
Being anxious is different than fear. The latter is an automatic physiological response to danger. A lion charges at you outside the tour bus on a Safari and without thinking, you dash toward the door of the bus to scramble to safety. Your house alarm clangs at 2 a.m. and your heart starts beating wildly.
Although you may have physical sensations along with anxiety, that is not the same as having fear. Anxiety comes from thoughts about the future which cause us discomfort, not from actual impending harm.
Knowing the difference between fear and anxiety helps keep you present. The good news is that if you’re in a genuinely scary situation, you can trust that fear will automatically take over to try to keep you safe.
3.) Worry (aka anxiety) is useless
We think that if we worry enough, we can somehow fashion the future to our liking for when we get there. It has a magical time travel appeal that goes like this: If I think about something enough now, when the time comes for it to happen, all will be well.
You try to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong ahead of time—on your wedding day, starting a new job, at the big bash you give every year for your employees, on a date with someone you have a crush on, driving to another state to visit a friend—in order to get everything set up ahead of time so that when you get to the future, nothing will go wrong.
In the back of our minds we know that we can’t control life and end up depending on worry to give us a leg up on achieving success. We assign worry undeserved power, give our thoughts about the future a life of their own, and believe they can shape our destiny for the better.
We worry because it feels better than doing nothing and experiencing helplessness, futility or despair. We worry to combat that awful feeling that things often don’t and won’t go our way. But mostly we worry because it’s become a habit and we don’t realize that it’s unnecessary, harmful and a waste of time.
4.) Worrying is not problem-solving
Worrying is a misguided attempt to become less anxious which takes place in a closed mental loop and generally produces more of itself. It’s an internal process, an intra-psychic phenomenon.
Like a dog chasing its tail, thoughts race around in circles without getting anywhere. We imagine various scenarios and outcomes, but our agita remains, so we redouble our efforts to produce more or better solutions. The process is like trying to know what the weather is like when you’re indoors. You can’t. You need to step outside to find out.
Problem-solving occurs outside your mind in the real world where the problems are. For the best solutions, you’ll want to intentionally develop strategies to solve problems, develop coping skills, and prepare yourself with numerous Plan Bs.
However, you can’t know if strategies will succeed (and eliminate anxiety) until you’ve tested them where problems are happening, that is, out in the world. Taking your show on the road is the only way to ascertain if your ideas are winners.
5.) Mindfulness increases attention to now
There is nowhere we can ever be physically other than in the present. When our minds drift back to the past or catapult into the future unintentionally, we lose touch with the current moment.
To thwart this dynamic, pay attention to what you’re doing, whether it’s washing dishes or filling your gas tank, whether you’re stuck in traffic or waiting for an appointment at the dentist. Remain present by looking around and noticing the details of your surroundings.
When you’re doing an important task, reign in your thoughts from drifting toward future events. Live life one experience or moment at a time. The problem with chronic anxiety is that even when we get to whatever point in the future, we’ve been anxious about, we’re still not present.
Because by then we’re anticipating and trying to project control over the next situation or the one after that. By being mindful, we get to experience life to its fullest extent moment by moment.
6.) Focus on your senses to stay present
The antidote being less anxious and connecting to now is to focus on your senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing. By grounding ourselves sensorially, we shift our focus from trying to control the future to simply being in the now.
Toward that end, when you feel anxious, ask yourself these five questions to anchor yourself in the present.
- What do I see? Take a close look at the world around you. You’re here and not stuck in a time warp. Call what you see by name and describe it. Take a detailed mental snapshot. In my office, a client might say: “I see you in your brown chair, the woodsy picture over your desk, and the ceiling fan.”
- What do I hear? Tune in to sounds around you. Don’t just settle for the first ones you notice, but strain to identify background noises such as distant voices, cars driving by, or the whir of an air-conditioner. If you don’t hear any threat, relax and enjoy the moment.
- What do I smell? To ground yourself in the present, sniff the air or take a deep breath. You’ll be surprised what lingers in it: perfume, auto exhaust, perspiration, cooking odors. Breathing deeply (in clean air) will also help you relax.
- What am I sensing through touch? Notice tactile sensations. Imagine being fastened to the present and to the earth. Your feet are firmly planted on the ground, you’re sitting in a chair or lying on a bed. What textures do you feel? Are they smooth or rough, hot or cold, soft or hard?
- What am I tasting? Mindful eating is crucial to staying connected to appetite cues and eating what our bodies enjoy and need for nourishment. When you’re anxious, you may turn to food. If you’re anxious while eating, consciously shift your focus to how food tastes, its odor and texture, and how it feels in your body. If you’re anxious when you’re not hungry, don’t confuse wanting food with wanting comfort. Find other ways to shut off your agita.
In order to be less anxious and more present, you’ll need to take a two-pronged approach to change. This involves actively and intentionally turning off your “what if?” thoughts by simply noticing but not attaching to them, distracting yourself with more pleasant thoughts, or taking positive actions.
It also involves shifting your mental energy away from the future and what’s going on inside your mind and purposely becoming entirely absorbed in the present moment. With practice, you’ll learn how to do both, and the better you get with one endeavor, the better you’ll do with the other.