Nearly 20 percent of the population suffers from an anxiety disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or social phobia. While there are serious concerns about diagnostic inflation—that is, the expanding definition of behaviors that may not actually reflect a mental illness—some researchers argue that the rise in these disorders is more than just psychiatric overreach.
Therefore, treating true clinical anxiety disorders takes a trained mental health professional. But the more mild anxiety that most of us may feel throughout any given day (passing a test, asking someone out on a date, and so on) may be manageable with a better understanding of how anxiety works. Once you wrap your head around what makes anxiety tick, it becomes easier to dismantle it and feel more calm and confident in these common, stressful situations.
Occasional anxiety is an intense feeling of worry about something that’s uncertain. This often leads to experiences such as having racing thoughts and feeling fear. These symptoms often stem from two beliefs:
- “Something unpleasant is going to happen.”
- “I won’t be able to handle it.”
If you can combat one of these two halves of anxiety, you can greatly reduce how much anxiety you feel. If you can debunk both halves, you may come close to eliminating your nervous feelings.
“I’m going to fail the exam.”
“My crush is going to reject me.”
“My boss is going to turn me down for a raise.”
These are all manifestations of the idea that “something unpleasant is going to happen.” There are two ways to fight against this belief. The first is to remember that it may not be true that this is the case. You could pass the exam. Your love interest could accept your offer of a romantic date. Your boss may give you the raise that you’re about to ask for. Just because you’re afraid of a particular outcome doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to happen.
The second way to defend against this kind of belief is by preparing for that unpleasant outcome. Even though it’s not guaranteed to happen, it’s also not impossible for it to happen. Being prepared can help you feel more secure about handling it if it does take place. This preparedness can reduce how stressed you are about it. You might be surprised by how much better you’ll feel by simply having a plan B.
Research the makeup exam and the cost of study groups. Then, if you do fail for some reason, you already know what you need to do to retake the exam.
Choose a date night while something else casual is happening with family or friends, such as a cookout or a watch party. If all goes well with your request for a date, you go on the date! But if you get rejected, you have somewhere you can go to be surrounded by people you care about and soften the disappointment you might feel. If your boss rejects your request for a raise, anticipate what you can do to make yourself more valuable or find a better job.
“If I fail the exam, I’ll never get into a good school.”
“If I get rejected, I’ll never find love.”
These thoughts are different ways to express the belief that you won’t be able to handle the unpleasant thing if it ever takes place.
To combat this, remember that you’ve likely been through many unpleasant experiences at this point in your life. Things that left you heartbroken, angry, disappointed, or bewildered. Yet you survived after having gone through those things. One key method for battling the idea that you can’t handle an unpleasant situation is simply to remember that you can. Yes, it might hurt or be humiliating or be expensive or frustrate you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t survive it at all.
Again, being prepared goes a long way. You can handle most things in life if you know they’re coming and have time to get ready for them. The shock of an unexpected disappointment is often more powerful because it’s a surprise. You take some of its power away by recognizing it as a possibility and preparing for it before it happens. If it doesn’t happen, that’s great. But if it does, you’re ready to manage it appropriately.
It’s hard to break thinking patterns overnight, but if you work at reframing how you look at situations that cause you anxiety, you can gradually start to feel less anxious over time.
“I’ve studied hard for this test, and I can always take it again if I need to. I’ll do my best!”
“I can always hang out with my friends at the parade on Saturday if I get rejected. I owe it to myself to at least ask.”
Unpleasant things aren’t always going to happen. Even if they do, you’re capable of surviving that painful situation. Get in the habit of thinking through the two halves of anxiety. Day after day and year after year, you may find that you feel less anxious and more confident in your everyday life. If you feel like your anxiety is getting worse over time or that it’s completely unmanageable, reach out for assistance by calling 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) or visiting SAMHSA.gov.