Sunday Scaries

Feeling anxious? Mental-health experts reveal how to build a ‘mental gym’

How to confront anxiety in the moment — and prepare for when it strikes again.

Antique print of a man's head representing the areas of the brain responsible for human thought.
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If you’re feeling particularly concerned about the state of the world, you’re not alone.

While addressing what can be done to alleviate these stressors at their root is important, you also can’t do that work if you’re depleted.

The 2022 Stress in America survey, an annual report by the American Psychological Association, captured a wide range of intensified fears and anxieties. Eighty-one percent of respondents cite “global uncertainty” as a top source of stress, and stress levels linked to money are the highest recorded since 2015. Seventy-three percent report feeling overwhelmed by the number of crises across the world, with 63 percent reporting their lives have been “forever changed” by Covid-19.

Meanwhile, a recent American Psychiatric Association poll found that 51 percent of Americans are anxious about how climate change will affect future generations.

Alongside these worries are fresh anxieties prompted by our new normal, like returning to in-person work and masking confrontations.

There are actions you can take to curb your anxiety directly before you encounter a trigger and in the moment of confrontation. Some of these overlap with what you can do more generally to increase your capacity to manage your worries.

Critical to each step is incorporating mindfulness, explains Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment, being aware of your thoughts and feelings, and using this awareness to manage those emotions without judgment.

Sweeny tells me that even a brief mindfulness exercise can be helpful for calming the mind, readying it for a “less reactive and more productive response to stress,” managing stress in the moment, and developing a higher threshold for stress and anxiety.

“I love the idea of mindfulness as going to the ‘mental gym,’’’ Sweeny says.

“Practicing repeatedly builds up strength and resilience, but even practicing in the moment can metaphorically ‘pump’ our muscles and give us a boost of calm.”

What to do before you encounter what makes you anxious

Even a brief mindfulness exercise can help calm the mind.

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Maybe it’s an hour before an encounter you’re dreading, perhaps it’s before you read the news. We all experience the stomach-clenching moments that precede an anxiety-producing event. At times, we can feel anxiety about anxiety.

In the moments before you encounter what makes you feel anxious, it’s helpful to ask yourself what is the best, worst, and most likely scenario that may result from the experience, explains therapist Alyssa Mancao. Because anxiety often causes us to hyper-focus on the worst-case scenario, asking yourself these questions can reorient your perspective, she explains.

Repeating an empowering affirmation can also help, Mancao says, as can practicing taking deep breaths.

Celeste Viciere, also a therapist, recommends deep breathing and describes it as a “powerful underrated tool.” She says that simply setting aside two minutes to breathe can help.

When you mentally prepare to encounter a stressful situation, it’s also critical to pay attention to the language you’re using to describe your anxiety, Viciere says.

“A lot of times, people will, unfortunately, say, ‘I am anxious,” she tells me. “But you’re actually feeling anxious — by saying “I am” you start to embody that anxiousness.”

Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss, recommends putting this self-reflection on paper. He endorses writing down your concerns, as well as the responses you would like to use if you encounter those concerns.

“Taking worries from your mind and putting them onto paper is a great way to take a break from overthinking,” Minden says. “If you catch yourself worrying about something you’ve already worked through, you can remind yourself that you’ve spent time on that issue and resolved it — so you don’t need to revisit it mentally.”

Writing also brings greater clarity to vague thinking, Minden adds, which can help with problem-solving. By addressing what you’re specifically anxious about, you can shift your attention from “what ifs” toward productive actions.

What to do when you’re in an anxiety-producing situation

Most people make the mistake of focusing on their anxiety and how to control it when they are in a stressful situation, Minden says. This is especially true when one experiences social anxiety: People can become consumed by their own emotions and fear of how they are perceived.

Instead, it’s more helpful to “shift your attention to the other person and the experience of interacting with them,” Minden says. He recommends remembering this through the mantra “accept and redirect.” You can take a moment to internally accept that you feel anxious, then redirect your attention and behavior toward the situation.

In anxiety-producing moments, it’s also important to remember you don’t have to respond to whatever is triggering your anxiety immediately, Mancao says.

“You can take a deep breath, think things through, or ask to take a break so you can gather your thoughts,” she says.

How to manage anxiety every day

“It’s great to have tools when we are in an anxious situation,” Viciere says. “But it’s even better to have a regiment and look at it as your daily medicine.”

This routine can include eating healthy, sleeping well, exercising, and mindfulness. It’s important to check in with yourself, Viciere says, and pay attention to how you’re framing your experiences.

She points to work as an example: If you’re getting ready for work and thinking about it negatively, your mind will look for evidence to confirm that it’s bad. Even if the day ends up better than the day before, you’ll likely hyper-concentrate on what didn’t go well. To move forward in a way that benefits mental health, it’s best to refocus your thoughts on what you have control over and what you can change, Viciere says.

Effective strategies for managing stress also include “setting limits on the number or intensity of stressful experiences you take on, prioritizing self-care, and engaging in activities that promote relaxation — like sleep, yoga, meditation, or massage,” Minden says.

“Anxiety management is enhanced by shifting your focus from trying to reduce or control it and instead, learning how to accept, tolerate, and work through it,” he adds.

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