There’s not much in our lives that is certain, so if you are someone that suffers with anxiety surrounding situations out of your control, it’s probably something you’re dealing with fairly regularly. Uncertainty is completely unavoidable – yes, you could avoid your main triggers by skipping that family meal, missing the party on Saturday or maybe calling in sick for work today but uncertainty surrounds us every day. You could try and control as many aspects of the situation as you can but, chances are, something’s going to happen that you’re not ‘prepared’ for…Someones going to ask you something you don’t know the answer to, the menu is going to have changed, you might be late (or maybe even earlier than everyone else), the trains could be cancelled, literally anything can happen! Unfortunately, particularly anxious people do often find this uncertainty intolerable but excessive worrying won’t change the unpredictable and most people will engage in common behaviours to try and keep themselves from struggling. All of the following behaviours on their own and at a moderate level are very much normal, anxiety is normal, it’s the excessiveness that becomes an issue:
- Seeking reassurance. You might find yourself asking too many questions or asking the same questions over and over even though you probably already know the answer…I do this all the time and I hate it, it makes me feel like I’m making myself look stupid because of course I already know the answer to whatever silly questions I’m asking, or usually it doesn’t even matter. You may also find yourself repeatedly asking opinions before you make your own decisions. This is definitely a bit of me! It definitely doesn’t help when people don’t give you the answers you want, either.
- Making lists. A to-do list is fine but excessive list-making actually be quite counterproductive. If you find yourself making multiple, detailed to-do lists, this could be a sign that you’re stressed. Until recently, I was using a calendar, diary, journal, to-do list, two whiteboards and then extra lists attached to the whiteboards. Most of the lists were pretty repetitive and unnecessary so I’ve been trying to stick to just using my bullet journal – which I love so far!
- Refusing to delegate. You might refer to this as being a ‘control freak‘ – being unable to deal with the uncertainty of allowing someone else to complete a task, resulting in you piling more and more work onto yourself and heightening your stress levels.
- Over-preparing. We always want to be prepared and have a plan B, but if you’ve spent hours worrying and preparing for plans C – Z then you are over-preparing. The likelyhood is that, usually, Plan A works out just fine and everything else you’ve organised is unnecessary.
- Double checking. This pairs with seeking reassurance but also includes physically double checking, such as repeatedly checking the door is locked (or the straighteners turned off!) when checking once will suffice. I check I’m in the right gear constantly when driving and then, even when I am, I pop it out and back in again to be sure which is really just giving myself unimportant jobs to concentrate on that could distract me from what I really should be paying attention to. This can escalate to more extreme behaviours like calling loved ones repeatedly throughout the day to check that they’re okay when you have no reason to believe they might not be.
- Procrastinating/Avoiding. In more extreme cases, you might be avoiding certain situations altogether but this can also include procrastinating until you’re late and then probably rushing around, more stressed and embarrassed because of your lateness. This is something I try very hard not to do but I do often procrastinate when I’m stressed. Avoiding situations might lead to the breakdown of relationships that are important to you but, unfortunately, when you’re feeling anxious about going somewhere it feels like the easiest and safest solution is to just not go.
- Distraction. This goes hand in hand with avoidance and procrastination – keeping so busy that you don’t have time to think. Distraction as a technique can help control your attention with where it needs to be but distraction as a behavioural strategy is essentially doing the exact opposite and keeping your attention away from where it’s needed.
But how can we increase our tolerance?
It’s funny because ‘exposure therapy‘ is actually kind of similar to the unhelpful stuff friends and family say, worded differently and sounding a little more doable. You’ve probably found yourself making excuses to avoid something in the past and been told ‘just do it, you’ll be fine‘, ‘it won’t be so bad if you just get on with it, worrying is making it worse‘, ‘you’ll get used to it‘ etc…All things we hate hearing when we’re in a bad spot but the science behind it shows that it does actually work. However, the main issue people have with this is essentially setting their goals too high, exposing yourself to too much too soon is guaranteed to scare you away from using the strategy regularly and effectively. For example, if like me you have a million to do lists the idea isn’t to throw the to-do lists away and live on the edge of being expected to remember all your plans in your head but more that you should try only having a few, useful to-do lists that serve their purpose and actually help you. If social situations are one of your issues, maybe you pop out to meet friends for 30mins and head home. Next time, maybe stay a little longer and increase from there until you can make the whole event! The gradual reduction on the anxiety surrounding that situation will increase your ability and confidence to cope – it doesn’t mean the anxiety will always disappear but it will be much less. Think about what situations make you anxious, particularly something you avoid and break it down into a very simple and very achievable goal. Do not be put off when you still feel anxious whilst completing this task, the idea is to be aware of that feeling and push yourself through it – there’s probably been way harder things you have achieved simply because you had no other option so you have got through much more than whatever goals you are sitting yourself now and you can do this.
Let me know how you get on in the comments below!