11 Ways to Cope with Anxiety When You’re Busy – Psychology Today

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Finding ways to cope with anxiety is as much a matter of perspective as strategy. Anxiety in and of itself doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and in fact can be a help, especially when we are busy. A powerful source of information and energy, anxiety can walk a fine line between motivating and overwhelming depending on how we choose to view it.

For those who live with anxiety on a more-than-occasional basis, choices tend to vacillate between giving into it or learning to live with it. “Perspective” can seem like a leisure activity in our fast-paced, information-packed world, rather than a line-item on a competent person’s calendar.

And yet, without perspective, there really is no competence. Information overload and the constant state of alert cause anxiety to fall off the fence and into the proverbial briar patch of overwhelm.

Learning ways to cope with anxiety when its optimization is still possible is far different than operating a rescue mission after it has all but crippled you. And when you’re busy (And who doesn’t feel “too busy”?), it is especially important to have some practiced methods of anxiety management on-hand.

Stress can be a tricky player. Sometimes it shows up as a factor beyond your control, forcing the hand of change and adaptation. Without it, there would be no growth, no strengthening, no evolution. And that is as true for the planet and its species as it is for the individual.

At the other end of the spectrum, stress can be a reflection of your mental and emotional responses to stimuli. Cognitively you may suspect or even know that the events triggering your anxiety in a given situation are actually “neutral,” and it is only your responses to them that are not. Frustrating as those times are (and we all have them), those are actually the “stressful moments” most imbued with opportunity.

Regardless of the origin of your anxiety, a stress response with a permanent green light isn’t helpful. Chronic non-stop stress can overwhelm the nervous system and take its toll, both physically and emotionally.

You can, however, make choices and take actions to mitigate that stress response. There are ways to cope with anxiety so that you come out on the winning end and reap the benefits of anxiety as a resource.

Here are 11 strategies to try, especially when you’re busy:

1. Relaxation techniques for creeping-past-moderate anxiety.

By knowing how you instinctively respond to stress, you can best choose a course of action that either utilizes the stress or helps to quiet it. Do you get worked up? Retreat? Feel energized? Paralyzed? By knowing your unique tendencies, you can be in charge of your anxiety, not the other way around.

Moderate anxiety is where optimization lies. It’s where you will experience the “nudge” to get things done, push a little harder, risk going outside your comfort zone. It’s the “chatter” range of anxiety that keeps you accountable to the things that are important to you.

When anxiety starts “yelling” at you, however, the internal experience is literally like being yelled at. Your mind becomes overwhelmed, or can even shut down as a defense mechanism.

Think of the difference between a medication that hits your system as “full dose” vs. “extended release.” Keeping anxiety at a “chatter” level will keep you comfortably on your toes and in sync with the productivity it fuels.

On those occasions when the volume of your anxiety starts ramping up, it helps to have some techniques to bring your body and mind back into equilibrium. You may just need to dial back on the volume, or you may need to “reset” and start fresh after a break. The key is to recognize when your anxiety is starting to take control of you, and intervene with a relaxation technique that works for you.

Examples of relaxation techniques include:

  • deep breathing
  • mindfulness meditation
  • body-scan meditation
  • visualization
  • yoga and Tai Chi

2. Uni-task vs. multi-task.

We are all conditioned to believe that we must consistently do a gazillion things at once in order to keep up with the Joneses, let alone to succeed. But constant multitasking actually causes the brain to work less efficiently.

Learning to “uni-task” is at the heart of mindfulness meditation and is a powerful tool in helping to establish priorities while letting non-essentials fall away. Put down your phone and be with your child. Get out of the office and have a “walking meeting” with your co-worker. Get comfortable giving your attention to one thing at a time.

3. Spread the love.

Direct your anxiety into helping someone else. It’s amazing how the proclivity for worrying dissipates when you are selflessly serving someone else’s needs. And it’s no secret that you will benefit, as well.

4. Exercise.

Even gentle exercise like walking or yoga can have a profound effect. The endorphins released with gentle exercise will keep you energized and focused without the uncomfortable anxiety effects.

5. Talk it out.

Having someone to talk with when anxiety starts to get ahead of you can help slow its progress and steer you back toward its productive benefits. A friend, counselor, or support group can help you keep perspective. And infusing a little laughter into the conversation is great medicine.

6. Turn off to tune out.

Turn off the TV and say “night-night” to your phone at least an hour before bedtime. The last thing an anxious mind needs when trying to wind down is a barrage of hostile headlines and social media notifications.

The sleep-assaulting effects of your screen’s blue light frequency can also wreak havoc with your ability to drift off. Because it mimics the blue light of dawn, it can sabotage your sleep ritual by “waking you up.”

There are plenty of low-tech ways to relax before bed. Try a book with actual pages and/or a diffuser with calming essential oils. Or download a filter to your computer to change the light frequency.

7. Eat well.

How you eat affects how you feel, both physically and emotionally.

The common-sense guidelines for keeping your body healthy also pertain to keeping your brain healthy. Watch the caffeine, avoid fried and high-sugar foods, and eat oil-rich fish and plenty of vegetables. Keeping your blood-sugar levels on an even keel is one of the simplest ways to cope with anxiety while fostering a healthy all-around life.

8. Take action in spite of fear.

Instead of allowing yourself time to brood over all the possible outcomes of your choices, take action. Get into the game. Take baby steps if that is all you can do. But stand up to the fear and make adjustments once you are in motion. You’ll find that most of that catastrophizing was for naught.

9. Tell yourself you can handle this, because you are handling it.

When doubt creeps in, pull out a mantra that works for you — something like, “I can handle this, and everything is going to be OK.”

While the anxiety that you are feeling is likely a signal for needed growth, there is no 911 for you to accomplish it all right now. You are handling the demands of this moment, and you will handle the demands that come after. One breath, one moment, one task at a time.

By recognizing that you are managing — even if not so gracefully — you can also shed a common secondary anxiety that comes along with stress: “I can’t handle this.” You may not want to handle it, but you can.

10. Be strategic in placing your expectations.

In the spirit of making stress as low as possible, strive to limit high expectations. Taking a moment to ask yourself, “Do I have control over this? And if so, how much?” can do wonders to position you advantageously and prevent the deflation that comes from having high hopes dashed.

Your hopes and dreams are precious commodities. Be protective of them, and careful not to put them at unnecessary risk. Look to focus on realistic goals, informed by what is actually happening. Notice where you feel traction, and look to build expectations from there.

However, even when you’re keeping your expectations in check, disappointments will still happen. And, no matter how small they are, they can still hurt – because you care.

Your caring nature is a vital part of you. It’s OK to be sad for a short while when you feel disappointed before moving forward again. The important thing is that you are willing to keep moving so that you don’t get stuck in any feelings of disappointment along the way to pursuing your hopes and dreams.

11. Identify how you are overextending and pull back.

When stress rears its head, most of us stretch to meet its demands. This is how we grow and get stronger. But when we stretch too much and avoid setting limits, especially at work, we risk a diminishing return on investment. Perfectionism can lure us out of balance, as well.

For many of us, saying “no” can be tough. How can you limit some of your overextending? Where can you claim more time, more space for you? How, and to whom, can you say “no” or “not now” with consequences you can live with?

It is too tempting to say “no” and “not now” to our own needs in order to cope; but in the long run, this is a recipe for burnout. While flexibility might be admirable, it can be an impediment to holding onto balance. Flexibility still needs to suit your own needs to be sustainable.

Anxiety has the ability to increase energy, streamline mental focus and boost productivity. Optimizing it relies on you being able to recognize its symptoms and keep a positive perspective, then using those symptoms to your advantage as much as possible. By having reliable ways to cope with anxiety, you can embrace it as a colleague that is accompanying you on your journey for your highest good.


For more help with managing anxiety, check out my new book, Hack Your Anxiety, register for my free mini-ecourse by signing up for book bonuses here, or check-out my anxiety and relationships blogs.  

Originally published on Dr. Clark’s Psychology Today blog

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD