A guide to reducing anxiety
In this previous article, I spoke about the importance of living in the moment, and the positive effect it has on our emotional well-being. But as we all know, life does require some planning and foresight. We can’t just ‘wing it’. This article aims to shed light on common unhealthy ways people think about the future, as well as explain the techniques used for positive thinking about the future through planning and the ability to adapt.
Why I’m writing this
On the whole 2015 wasn’t a fantastic year, although through the challenges I faced I learnt a lot about myself. 2016 was looking to be the year in which the new stepped out of my comfort zone and followed my new outlook on life through my actions. My basic outline for the year looked like this.
March – Mid-June: University – Semester 1.
Mid-June – late July: Backpack around Scandinavia and Europe.
August – November: University – Semester 2. Either on exchange or at home.
To cut the story short, I hadn’t been feeling the best for the past 6 months. I’ve recovered from one illness, however due to another, am not 100%. I’ve been told I have to undergo a tonsillectomy and have no set date yet; but regardless of the date, my original plan for the year is not possible anymore.
I did something every sick person shouldn’t do and googled my symptoms. Every possible medical symptom has been linked to a form of cancer; as well as a much larger number of probable causes, yet due to ego, the human mind tends to irrationally focus on the worst case scenario. I worked myself in to a little anxiety attack before realising the worst case scenario was highly improbable. I then brought myself back to reality by focusing on my senses to stimulate my brain to live in the moment.
The point I’m getting at is that we have to be aware of all possibilities, but also know that running through numerous hypothetical situations and coming up with an action plan for each is unhealthy. Many people often jump to the worst scenario with no concrete evidence to support their thoughts and some people will even continue to believe the worst even when evidence proves otherwise.
The ‘worst case scenario’ thought process is extremely unhealthy and achieves nothing other than raising stress and anxiety levels. We are better off putting the thoughts aside until, if on the odd chance the worst case scenario is true. Then and only then should we think about developing a logical action plan to attack the situation. In the meantime, why should dwell on something we can’t change when we should be focusing on each moment. After all, that’s what life is about, enjoying the moments we have.
So on the whole, my year isn’t shaping up to look like my original plan. I will miss out on one major thing, either a semester of university or my backpacking adventure. What I’ve come to realise is ‘missing out’ on one thing only frees me up for a new adventure or experience. Our egos cause us to feel like we are missing out, but in reality we aren’t. We are just experiencing something different during that time.
So instead of looking at the surgery as something that will make me miss out on my plans, I’ve chosen to look at it as something that will increase my ability to enjoy experiences (due to better health, hopefully) as well as a learning experience to find the positives from what I originally thought of as a negative; and there are always positives to be found. With a quick perspective change, I’m now in a win/win situation.
How not to plan
In almost any area of life, it is possible to come up with many incredibly unlikely scenarios and allow them to dominate your life. If your partner is late home from work, you could think they are having an affair, have a gambling addiction they’re trying to hide or have died in a car accident.
From here you could start planning what you would do these situations, how you’ll tell your family, how you’ll deal with the grief, where you’ll live… You get the point. This thinking, as stated earlier causes unnecessary stress and anxiety and is pointless.
Looking at this situation in terms of odds, the most likely scenario is they were stuck in traffic or had to work late. The ironic thing is, the most likely scenario will not affect your life and almost always, the negative effects the worrying were over nothing.
Bad planning = Overthinking = Stress
These hypothetical plans are a waste of time and brainpower, and leave us feeling anxious and tired. Humans have a tendency to create a problem when there isn’t one, or absorb themselves in other people’s problems to fill some sort of void (one reason people watch soap operas or reality TV that has no real story or plot, just drama).
In the past, I found that once I’d come to terms with one potential issue, something else unrelated would pop in to my mind and start a negative thought process. I’m not quite sure why, but I think for many people it stems from the fact that we want people to care about us, and by creating a problem to talk about, it keeps attention on us and tricks us into feeling loved. Once you learn that peace can only come from within, the insecurity that causes this negative thought process is no longer present and you can be freed from the trap.
In the meantime, a great technique is to dismiss these thoughts as soon as they arise by living in the moment. This stops them from manifesting and starting a seemingly endless negative thought loop. The more we dismiss them, the easier it gets.
Sometimes we may struggle to dismiss a thought, but most of the time it’s relatively easy, especially if we do it the moment it pops into mind. The more you entertain the though, the harder it is to dismiss. After a while you may catch yourself laughing if an illogical thought comes to mind as you’re aware it’s just a nasty trick your ego and mind is playing on yourself. I have certainly learnt to, and it feels great.
How to plan
Planning for every situation is unique, but all plans should all follow similar rules.
Goal setting is extremely important, as knowing what you want to achieve within a time-frame creates a good kind of stress that motivates you to work towards your goal. Long term goals should be broken down in to smaller goals, as they are easier to achieve and each time you succeed you get a motivation boost. It’s also a great way to track progress.
Setting goals that are realistic yet challenging is essential. If you set goals too easy, you won’t be impressed by your efforts, and if you set goals that are too hard and you fail, you will feel like a failure.
Eg – Let’s say you earn $50000 a year plan to save $10000 this year. This sounds like a lot of money, however it works out to be just over $192 of the $961 you earn a week. When put like this, it’s clear how achievable the goal is and paves a path that if stuck to, will achieve the long term goal. You wouldn’t try and save $40000, as it would be almost impossible and you wouldn’t try and save $1000 as it isn’t challenging.
Be aware of the worst, but don’t overthink it
For me, I have mentally prepared myself (as much as I can) for the worst possible diagnosis, however unlikely. I think it’s naïve not to be aware of the worst outcome, but the major problem comes from obsessively thinking about what you will do if you’re unlucky enough to actually get it. All that does is feed anxiety and kills your mood.
What we must do in these situations is understand
that we can only control our reaction and way in which we deal with the problems, not the problems themselves. Accepting what we can’t control allows us to move forward, whereas asking questions such as “why did this happen to me?” keeps us feeling sorry for ourselves and does not allow us to be in an assertive position when it comes to dealing with the problem.
Don’t over plan anything
Going on a holiday soon or have your whole week planned out? If you do, your life my feel like a checklist, rather than an experience. You also leave no room for spontaneous adventures, which can be the most exciting experiences of all.
Also, if you can’t fulfill everything you’ve planned for yourself, you’ll feel that you’ve let yourself down, which could leave you thinking about what you could have done differently and cause anxiety.
Leaving a time buffer for things may make you feel unproductive, but you won’t be rushed in things you’re doing, which means you achieve the main focus of the day and be proud of your effort. You’ll never again be caught doing something important and stressed about being late to something less important.
Remember, it’s better do take longer on a task and do it properly, than do try and cram too many things into a day and worry about the quality of your work. The last thing you want is to think back and wish you had more time to do it better, or be forced to redo the task because it wasn’t done well enough.
Good planning = Success = Less anxiety
If we create achievable goals, realistic plans, and accept our limitations, we will be much happier and less anxious. Anxiety and stress created due to missing out comes from not accepting our time and energy limitations and things we have no control over.
Good planning also involves being able to change the plan and adapt. A good planner can plan around any roadblocks they may face, instead of getting anxious over the original plan failing. They will find fun in whatever they are doing, and probably come back with an even more exciting story than they would have had they followed the original plan. The most exciting stories I’ve heard are of spontaneous adventures or things that didn’t go to plan.
As for me, I’m ready for whatever the cause of my symptoms is, because whatever it is I will have to deal with. I want to reiterate that the best way to think about any scenario it to keep totally indifferent until there is evidence on the situation. The evidence can then be used to create the only necessary plan.
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