Gianna Biscontini is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst. Her work as a keynote speaker, lifestyle design and leadership coach, and writer has gained national attention in publications such as Forbes and has reached podcast audiences in over 100 countries. Learn more at GiannaBiscontini.com.
Let’s be real — no one loves anxiety. Defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome”, anxiety puts us in a state of paralyzing fear. If we avoid this feeling — named experiential avoidance by behavior analysts— it can maintain or exacerbate psychological distress. From this emotional state, it is difficult to evaluate outcomes, make choices or even go about our day.
Things happen. We occasionally bomb interviews, dates and life in general, and our brains are built to make sure painful things don’t happen again. However, this evolutionary tactic originated to keep us safe from becoming a lion’s dinner, and it hasn’t exactly modernized with the times — your brain can’t tell the difference between a scary boss and an actual tiger. So, while you feel like you’re about to be eaten alive, you are actually much safer.
If we can disrupt this ingrained reaction, we can learn to meet these moments and come to a healthier, more productive way of managing this uncomfortable state as opposed to pouring a glass of wine, diving into an IG hole or buying things we don’t need as a temporary escape.
Here are two actions and three questions to turn nonfunctional anxiety into a healthy stress management practice.
Physical check-in — Hydration? Sleep? Caffeine? Anxiety can be more likely to occur when we are sleep-deprived, dehydrated or when we’ve had too much caffeine, or it can creep up a day after drinking too much alcohol. If you find you are out of balance, take some time to replenish and restore whatever is out of whack.
Boxed breathing —Reset your emotional rollercoaster with boxed breathing. Set a timer for 1-2 minutes and follow this process for four seconds each:
- breathe in through your nose
- breathe out through your nose
If you’re especially anxious, you can extend your exhales 1-2 seconds longer. This will ease you into a calmer, more alert state so you are cognitively ready to dive into the questions below.
Where is this coming from?
Is the source of your anxiety a story or belief, like “I’m going to fail” or “I can’t do this”? Ask yourself where you first developed that belief. We are not born with these! Maybe it is from a loved one, an adversary or from lived experience (you blew that interview last time and therefore you will blow it this time).
The point in this question is to tease out which beliefs or stories are yours and which you’ve absorbed from someone else. If that anxiety belongs to someone else — toss it. It’s weighing you down.
Is it true and real?
Sometimes we receive advice from well-intended loved ones who, in an effort to protect us from harm, teach us to be overly cautious in case things don’t work out. Other times we may give jurisdiction over our self-confidence to those who tell us we can’t instead of those who tell us we can. Women also get inundated with societal messages like, “they won’t like you if you say that/do that/wear that”. These seemingly innocuous situations can manifest as anxiety-provoking messages on repeat — “you are not good enough, this will not go well”, which can peak a stress response around certain events. However, because no one knows what the future holds, you are essentially making a prediction.
To evaluate if this story or belief is true, ask yourself, How do I know? When we ask ourselves how we “know” something will happen and, consequently, develop an anxiety around that event or story, we often realize we are making wild assumptions based on something that is unlikely to happen or maybe not even real.
This question positions you to evaluate whether the story you are telling yourself about what will happen is true, real or likely.
What can I do about it?
There is only so much we can control and empowering yourself, even with something small, will help you build confidence for similar anxiety-provoking events in the future.
For example, make a plan with more specific questions like, What do I need to know? How can I prepare? What action will reduce my fear around this?
Once you’ve done what you can, refer to the breathing exercise above and see if you can learn to surrender some control.