The panicky jitters that seem to come from nowhere, the twisted knots in the stomach, that one niggling thought that just keeps playing over and over in your head like that time your mom's Neil Diamond cassette melted in the car, and you had to listen to "America" every morning on the way to school. Anxiety can be an absolute beast to deal with, and learning how to talk yourself out of anxiety is key. I have struggled with it myself over the years, and am always on the lookout for new tips and insights on how to not gnaw through a night guard.
I reached out to David H. Rosmarin, a clinical psychologist, about some powerful ways to disrupt anxiety, and get it under control. Rosmarin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and the founder of The Center for Anxiety. So it's fair to say he knows a bit about the nail-biters and paper bag blowers of the world. I actually found myself feeling a smidge anxious chatting with him, he's such a smarty. Perhaps I should have had him talk me down pre-interview? Though he might have sent a bill... Which would have made me extremely anxious. No matter. He knows what you're going through, and he has some tips on how to stop those anxious thoughts right in their tracks and send them packing. But it's more than just asking yourself to relax.
1. Validate Yourself
Rosmarin says one of the main reasons anxiety can be so hard to get a handle on is because many of us spend a lot of time feeling bad that we're having it in the first place. Which is why he believes the first thing to do with anxiety is to validate oneself. "It’s important to remember that emotions are real, and they’re valid, even if they don’t seem to make sense. For example, if you have a tendency to feel anxious in social situations, and you’re at a party and everyone else seems to be having a great time but you’re really anxious, that’s valid. A lot of people judge themselves, like 'why is everyone having fun and I’m not?' And that only makes anxiety worse."
2. Acceptance Is Key
Along the lines of validating oneself, Rosmarin says people shouldn't try to fight the anxiety or avoid it — they should accept that it's happening. "It’s important to recognize that not everyone is built the same way. Some people are more anxious about money, some people are more anxious about social issues, some people have a tendency to get physically panicky, some people are more obsessive, some people are less anxious overall and less neurotic, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of those."
I would love to know the disadvantages of not being neurotic. Alas, I shall likely never know... But Rosmarin reminds people that either way, you need to shut down the self-criticism. "It’s not something to judge oneself over. When people are not accepting of their emotions, that typically puts them into a spiral."
And if you've already spiraled out and are now staring bug-eyed at the ceiling at 3 a.m.? Rosmarin says acknowledging what's happening will help. "Say to yourself, 'Wow, I’m having a really hard time right now. And that’s valid.' It doesn’t matter whether it's normal or typical or healthy or whatever. It is what it is. And we have to accept ourselves for who we are."
3. Face Your Fears
But take note — acceptance doesn't mean throwing in the towel. Rosmarin says just the opposite, that "just because someone feels anxious doesn’t mean that they can’t do things. Emotions are real, and they can make it hard to do things, but people can overcome their fears and be brave." He says it's a bit of a fake it til' you make it philosophy. "People can act in a confident manner even if they don’t feel confident. They can act in a calm manner even if they feel panicky. They can act relaxed even if they feel obsessive and worried. It’s about acting in a way that’s independent of how they feel."
And if you want to go the extra step, there's always exposure therapy, which is something Rosmarin does at the Center for Anxiety. "We encourage people to face their fears, where they will intentionally confront things that make them anxious. Like, if you’re afraid of social situations, go to parties. If you’re afraid of confined spaces, fly."
Rosmarin says to think of it like working out: "No one likes pumping iron, but people like the effects. And that’s working out for your anxiety, by pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. That’s what makes people emotionally strong. Of course don’t go too far. Just like you can pull a muscle, the same thing can happen with your emotions. But you should definitely push yourself."
While we tend to think of anxiety as directly related to a larger cause — like an illness or injury or work or relationship issue — sometimes, you might just need some water and a KIND bar. "People tend to be over anxious when they’re tired, or when they’re hungry." Rosmarin says it's important to be aware of those kinds of general self-care factors.
That said, if you really are dealing with a larger problem, he says to be sure to "give yourself a little leeway if there’s sort of a higher baseline of stress."
He did touch on one issue that made me laugh: people who get stressed on vacation. I have experienced this myself, and had a friend texting me about this very issue recently. She was all, "I'm at the beach with my family! What is wrong with me?" Rosmarin says this is common, and happens for a very simple reason: your routine is interrupted. "You don’t have the same diet, or the same exercise routine. Or you're waking up in a different time zone, the weather is different…" He says whatever it is that's triggering your vacay jitters, to again try and practice self-care, and pay attention to what might be feeling off for you.
In short — while having a KIND bar handy may help, the main thing to remember about anxiety? Be kind to yourself.