Very Special Episode
The emergency kit for anxiety, worry, and stress.
Before we launch in, two points:
- There are scientific ways to define anxiety, stress, and worry that distinguish among these states. But we’re speaking as lay people, so we’ll use these terms more or less interchangeably.
- Speaking of the science, we’re not talking as doctors or experts, and we’re talking about the range of ordinary emotions. Some people can have a level of anxiety that requires professional help to manage. If you feel overwhelmed and can’t function, we encourage you to get help. There are many excellent tools out there. Our conversation is about people who are experiencing an unpleasant amount, but still within what we might call the ordinary range.
This the Emergency Kit—the kind of thing to keep in your basement or the trunk of your car! Things that will help in the short term—not long-term solutions or deep work. But these are some solutions that may help you get through a tough time, right now.
The Emergency Kit includes
1. Reframing: Instead of seeing stress as a bad thing, and a source of worry itself (stress causes heart disease; stress causes insomnia; stress is bad for you), think about how stress is actually helpful. The psychologist and professor Kelly McGonigal wrote a fascinating book called The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. She argues that stress has many benefits.
Also, to re-frame, watch your language—not “I panicked” but “I got rattled,” not “I’m stressed” but “I’m excited” or “I’m pumped.”
Of course, sometimes stress does become harmful. Every medicine can become poison.
I mention a lecture given by Dr. Michael Sweeney, who pointed out that a certain level of anxiety helps children do well.
On other hand, perfectionism is about anxiety, not standards. So if you’re feeling “perfectionist,” a remedy isn’t a matter of lowering your standards, but managing your anxiety. If you’re anxious about failure, try re-framing it not as “I failed,” but “I had the courage to try.” “I didn’t get the promotion, but I had the courage to throw my hat in the ring.” Elizabeth and I remind ourselves: “If I’m not failing, I’m not trying hard enough.”
2. Calm your breathing. There are many apps to help with breathing.
3. Reach out to others. Talk to someone to get both social support and helpful information.
5. Proximity: This one is a bit tricky. Often we feel less anxious when we’re close to someone else, but while it’s comforting, it thwarts independence. If you want to read more about my struggles with my fear of driving, I write about it in my book Happier at Home.
6. Distraction: This tool gets a bad rap, but it can be helpful. Give yourself a mental break to get temporary relief from anxiety. This can help restore energy and perspective.
7. Planning: What can I do to make a challenging situation easier or more comfortable?
We interviewed Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking in episode 107.
8. Preparation: Push yourself to take just that first step; once we begin, we often feel much calmer and able to move forward.
9. Take action in the world: “Be the change you want to see in the world” is a quotation often attributed to Gandhi, but not verified—in any event, the idea is an important one. If you’re worried about something, try to take action to fix or change it.
10. Making a list: When thoughts are racing in your mind, put them down on paper.
11. Energy: Work on your sleep; exercise; don’t inundate yourself with upsetting news. In particular, Elizabeth and I feel that exercise really helps us to release anxiety.
12. Identify the problem: Don’t just get worked up; try to pinpoint and take action. Not “I’m anxious about the move,” but “I’m worried that I’m not far enough along in packing, and we won’t be ready when the movers come.” By identifying the problem, it helps us see a concrete problem for which we can seek solutions.
13. Schedule time to worry. Surprising but effective! We talked about this solution in episode 56.
14. Seek more information on something that’s worrying you. Sometimes, knowledge can be very helpful. Not just googling physical symptoms!
For instance, I read the excellent book Best Friends, Worst Enemies when I was worried about a social issue my daughter was experiencing, and I was very comforted by Michael Thompson’s observation, “We can’t spare our children normal social pain.” In her book Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life, Abigail Trafford points out that in the year following the decision to divorce or separate, people may behave erratically or in ways that seem out of character. Several friends going through divorce have told me that they felt much less anxious after they read that “crazy time” is a normal stage, it’s a thing that happens to some people, and it gets better.That information was very reassuring.
Or maybe you know someone who could give you some perspective or information. Ask yourself, “Is there someone who could give me some insight on what I’m worried about?”
15. Start tracking. If you’re worried about a physical symptom, or a pattern of behavior, start keeping a record. Our memories can be very faulty.
16. Beware of catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is when we magnify negative consequences, assume they’re certain to happen, “If I fail this test, I will never pass school, and I will be a total failure in life.” “If my sweetheart breaks up with me, I’ll be alone forever, I will never be happy again.” Remind yourself that these thoughts aren’t reasonable.
17. Treat yourself to a healthy treat. We talked about this way back in episode 9. This is a fun one! But remember to give yourself healthy treats: we don’t want to do something to make ourselves feel better that ends up making us feel worse.
18. Do good deeds for other people. One of the best ways to make ourselves happier is to make other people happier. (This is one of my Eight Splendid Truths.)
19. When you’re super-stressed about a mistake you’ve made, remind yourself, “We’ve all done it.”
We can use the Emergency Kit strategies to help face anxiety with as much composure as possible. In the end, we face difficult situations better when we take steps to help ourselves feel calm, energized, and active. Also, because anxiety is very catching, when we manage our own anxiety better, we probably help others to feel calmer as well.
She didn’t get Sarah a birthday present.
Gretchen’s Gold Star
Our former producer the brilliant Odelia Rubin has worked on a podcast that I just started listening to–very bingeable: 10 Things that Scare Me. It’s “a tiny podcast about our biggest fears.” Be warned: the things that scare people may scare you too; also, you may disagree about whether or not they should be scared. Check out their Random Fear Generator: http://feargenerator.org/quote.html. It’s strangely fascinating. You can add your own fear.
- Do you find that you’re less anxious when you do something creative with your hands? Or do you enjoy doing a simple activity while you listen to podcasts like Happier? I have a coloring book called The Happiness Project Mini Posters with thick pages you can color and pull out to frame or give to a friend. It makes a great gift. You can download a free sample page to color at GretchenRubin.com/resources.
- Subscribe to my “Moment of Happiness” newsletter to receive a daily happiness quotation in your inbox. Sign up at gretchenrubin.com/#newsletter.