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Managing Anxiety in a Crisis: 3 Steps to Thrive

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A crisis happens in an instant, and our anxiety adaptively rises to the occasion to assist us in quickly handling it. However, too much anxiety can be a hindrance. Yerkses Dodson curve underscores this visually – we need enough anxiety to function adaptively, but too much cripples us (see below).  In a crisis, we often feel more anxiety than is necessary, and need to pull back our anxiety to actually increase our performance. Crisis demands adaptive functioning on our parts and so managing our anxiety in a crisis is critical. Here are three steps to thrive.

 

  1. First step is self-empathy. Show yourself compassion for how you’re feeling. There’s a reason. You are not crazy. What are you upset about? What is reasonable to be upset about? Recognize it, and honor that. Do not waste energy fighting it, wishing it weren’t true, or wondering if you’re wrong. If you are feeling anxious, your body is trying to tell you something. Your job is to listen, and not argue with your body. You have enough on your plate already.
  2.  Second step is mindset.  Changing our mindset helps give us courage. We all know that at some level we have to act. Finding the courage to take action is sometimes the hardest part. This is where vigilance over your mindset comes in. Under times of stress, when action is needed most, we can’t afford to be negative. We can’t afford to feel defeated. We have to be strong, hopeful, and look for the opportunities. Finding opportunity in the crisis helps us keep our mindset positive.
  3. Third, feel and use the courage that comes from a mindset overhaul, and use it to take action. Do this for two reasons: not only because action needs to happen to forge a solution, but because action prompts profound growth and self-esteem that comes on the other side of action. Self esteem flows from stretching ourselves and succeeding. It even flows from stretching ourselves and stumbling, so long as we get up and keep stretching. Self-esteem is not about doing things that are easy. It’s about stretching to do things that are outside of our comfort zone. Only after we really try at something can we feel proud of ourselves. It is as simple as that. And that self pride builds the self esteem and courage we need to continue to face life’s challenges again and again.

 

So, take a deep breath, recognize how reasonable it is to feel anxiety, and ask yourself, “what’s next?” Define needed actions, and look for opportunities that are presented – What needs to be done? What repairs need to be made? What bridges need mending? And what new horizons need investigating? What are the next steps and how soon can you reasonably take them? Answer these questions, build a plan, and take the first steps. Action does two important things: it gives a much needed outlet for anxiety, and it works to solve the source of the anxiety. After even the first step, anxiety diminishes, and momentum begins to take hold.  
Understanding your experience (self-empathy), staying focussed on the opportunities for growth (mindset), and taking action are the three basic steps of managing anxiety in a crisis, and define human adaptation. As organisms, we thrive when we adapt.  Without opportunities for adaptation, we stagnate and whither. Crises can offer optimal vehicles for growth and self esteem that over time become the stepping stones of our life’s journey, and the seeds of our wisdom. Once you can activate your thinking, and calmly approach the solution, you are 75% of the way there. The process challenging but simple: When anxiety strikes, look for and generate self-empathy, find positive opportunities for growth, take action, and repeat.  This is anxiety into action, and it is how we grow and thrive. 

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

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