If you’re an anxious person, you’ve probably been told your whole life not to worry so much—to “stop overthinking things” and “just relax.” By now, you’ve perhaps given up on trying to feel better and resigned yourself to the idea that there’s just something wrong with you.
But that’s not true, says Alice Boyes, PhD, author of the “The Anxiety Toolkit” ($16, amazon.com). “It’s good that we have some people in our tribe who are bold and some who are cautious—that creates a normal [bell] curve, with different types of people on either end,” Boyes explained in an interview with Health.
As she argues in her new book, “the problem is when anxiety gets to the point that it’s paralyzing. I think of these bottlenecks as anxiety traps.”
Boyes describes the process of climbing out of these traps as “fine-tuning” your mind. “You’re learning how to work with your own hardware and software in the most effective way,” she said.
Here, she offers advice on how to escape from three of the most common traps.
You hesitate to act until you’re 100 percent ready
A large part of anxiety is having an “intolerance of uncertainty,” Boyes said. It involves a fear of failure, and can keep you mired in contemplation mode. You may have a tendency to consider many ideas without ever trying any of them. Or you may find yourself perpetually stuck in the research phase of projects.
Free yourself: “Anxiety-prone people tend to focus on the worst possible outcomes,” so they worry too much about the risk to take action, explained Boyes.
But the truth is, there’s usually a spectrum of possibilities: “When I worked as a therapist, I used to tell my clients to identify the worst thing that could happen, the best thing, and the most realistic thing. And to do it in that order.” The idea is to help yourself acknowledge the opportunities that exist along with the risks, so you feel safer when making a move.
Another trick is to make a plan for how you’d cope if the worst-case scenario came true. “Worriers are always thinking, What if? But they never actually answer that question.” Rather than constantly trying to avoid the negative outcomes, make an action plan. This can boost your perception of yourself as someone who can handle adversity when it strikes, which can be calming.
You obsess about mistakes
Over-thinking past missteps—meaning you’re replaying them again and again in your mind—is called ruminating, and it can leave you tangled up in knots.
Free yourself: “Sometimes a good way to escape the cycle is to come up with concrete steps for moving forward,” Boyes said.
She suggests you start by jotting down three possible actions you can take now. For example, if you’ve recently hired a new employee who isn’t working out, rather than beat yourself up over missing holes in his resume or other signs, define your options: 1) You could give him less responsibility 2) Provide more guidance 3) Fire him.
“Making the list shifts your mind into a more productive mode,” Boyes explained.
You dread criticism
Anxious people often go out of their way to avoid feedback because they already judge themselves harshly, and criticism from the outside is especially upsetting.
“Plus, you may know that you’ll be replaying the critique in your mind for days and weeks to come, and that makes it even harder,” Boyes added.
Free yourself: Try acting relaxed when you get a review. Even though you may feel crushed or defensive, send physical signals that you’re appreciative, Boyes suggested. Drop your shoulders. Lift your head. Relax your hands. This isn’t just an act: “Your feelings and thoughts will quickly catch up with your nonverbal cues.”
It may help to have some canned responses prepared in case you need to stall. For example, you could say, “Let me think about how best to proceed from here. I’ll email you with some thoughts.” That will buy you some time to mentally process the information and respond in a productive way.