Feelings of worry, restlessness, and tension; a sense of impending danger and doom; hyperventilation, difficulty sleeping, and concentrating on basic tasks—these are all the telltale signs of someone experiencing anxiety. Affecting 40 million adults—totaling 18.1% of the entire United States population—anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders in the country. There are several reasons why an individual might develop anxiety, with risk factors ranging from one’s genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. And for those of us without a full-blown anxiety disorder, anxiety is often still a part of our lives as well, particularly when going through major changes either at work or in our spheres. The first day at a new job, a one-on-one meeting with an important boss, a speech or performance in front of a large audience—all of these are things that would naturally make someone feel anxious.
Essentially, these nerve-wracking events are activating our body’s fight or flight response, the same system that would be activated when your caveman-self was about to fight a bear in the woods. In other words, anxiety is our body’s way of protecting us. The racing heart increases blood pressure, and hypervigilance is part of a built-in defense mechanism that induces physiological changes to help you quickly protect yourself from a perceived threat. However, anxiety becomes a problem when it’s maladaptive, occurring too frequently and too easily, and ultimately interfering with one’s ability to function or perform at all.
Some people may suffer from what is termed “high-functioning anxiety.” Although not recognized as a separate mental health diagnosis, high-functioning anxiety acts as a framework for understanding how anxiety manifests in different people. More specifically, it tends to be common amongst high achievers who manage to excel at work and in their relationships yet are internally struggling with many of the classic symptoms of anxiety disorder: irritability and frustration, waking up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts, and an intense fear of failure.
Those with high-functioning anxiety tend to cope by further engaging in damaging behaviors such as people-pleasing or increasing their workload while limiting their social life. The problem is that some of these negative coping patterns are inadvertently rewarded at work or even in society at large. As a result, those experiencing high-functioning anxiety tend to believe these experiences are necessary to keep their performance up.
Although completely treatable, only 36.9% of those struggling with anxiety end up getting treatment. Mental healthcare in the United States is particularly lacking. Even in states with the greatest access to health resources, over 38% of youth are not receiving the mental health services they need. Moreover, the percentage of adults with a mental illness who are underinsured has increased to 10.8%, totaling 5.1 million adults.
On top of that, 2020 was the year COVID-19 rewrote life as we knew it, with loneliness, isolation, and fear of the unknown only worsening the anxiety epidemic. According to a report by Mental Health America, the number of people looking for help with anxiety skyrocketed to a 93% increase compared to the 2019 statistic. Moreover, over 8 in 10 of those people who took the screening scored moderate to severe symptoms.
With many people working from home, the boundary between personal life and work-life has been further eroded. Constant email or Slack notifications, overloaded WiFi, noisy children, or pets can all create a hectic, stressed environment that can trigger feelings of anxiety. On top of that, when work isn’t a physical place you leave at the end of the day, it can be incredibly difficult to separate yourself from it, making overworking and burnout much more likely.
Indeed, anxiety seems to be becoming more and more prevalent. Yet just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s not a heavy burden to bear. At its worst, anxiety can negatively affect your productivity, relationships, confidence, and ability to enjoy life. Although it can all sound quite bleak, there are countless evidence-based techniques proven to help you manage your anxiety.
For those who enjoy processing thoughts and feelings by writing, hundreds of journaling prompts are specifically geared towards anxiety. Research indicates that those who don’t acknowledge their emotions tend to have lower well-being and more symptoms of stress. The process of writing out your thoughts and feelings is a way to force yourself to slow down and work through things one at a time. Attempting to describe your experiences to yourself can help you improve at naming your feelings and exploring the “why” behind them instead of getting trapped in an anxious spiral. In this way, it’s a means of practicing vulnerability and identifying patterns in your thoughts, which can ultimately lead to new insights, solutions, or simply a catharsis of emotions.
There are no rules when journaling. Some prefer prompts while others prefer to free-write; some might want to physically write on paper, while others would rather keep a digital journal. All in all, journaling is for you and you alone, a private space to keep track of triggers and reactions.
Particularly for high-performing people, taking the time to journal can be difficult to prioritize. Yet, effectively managing emotions, otherwise known as emotional intelligence, is a key leadership skill that is relevant not only in one’s personal life but in the workplace. Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman is one of many that researches what constitutes a good leader. According to Goleman, “Emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an intelligent, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.” Given the inextricable link between writing and emotional processing, journaling is a great way to manage anxiety and develop this emotional intelligence simultaneously.
Another common piece of advice is to ask for help. Yet, no one ever seems to tell you how. Confronting our own experiences with anxiety and reaching a point where we can be vulnerable with someone else is a challenge in and of itself. Many of us have been taught that strong emotions need to be repressed, and there seem to be certain unspoken societal and organizational rules against expressing those emotions.
Of course, some of us have a good friend, family member, colleague, or even therapist who we know wouldn’t judge us and who would be a great listening ear for the struggles we’re experiencing. Nonetheless, it can still be difficult to get the conversation started. Luckily, there are multiple guides online outlining how to ask for help. Even more, if you don’t have anyone to talk to or feel uncomfortable with the thought of having this conversation face-to-face, there are anonymous helplines and forums with other folks going through similar experiences.
For some, traditional techniques such as journaling don’t quite make the cut. Tim Ferriss, a well-established entrepreneur and self-described workaholic put forth some techniques for managing anxiety that go beyond these typical methods. These were pulled from the experiences of Charlie Hoehn, a full-time employee of Ferriss, while launching his book, “The 4-Hour Body.”
One of the suggestions was to enjoy guilt-free playtime with friends. Playing off of Ferriss’ tip to exercise daily, Hoehn suggests dropping the belief that exercise has to be some sort of punishment. Instead of running on the treadmill for an hour or doing a round of P90X, Hoehn instead wants readers to think of exercise like playtime. This entails physical movement that, yes, gets your heart rate up and gets you sweaty, but nonetheless is fun and enjoyable. Even better, it can be something you do with friends. Think outside sports like flag football or even a game of frisbee. For Hoehn, his favorite activity is going to the driving range. If it can be done outdoors, the fresh air and sunshine are only additional benefits. Forget all the measurements of heart rate, calorie counting, or time tracking. The only goal is to get movement, aiming for about 30 minutes a day to have fun and spend quality time with your friends.
Another important tip was to unplug all sources of news. Often, news headlines will report about the crime, economic breakdown, political turmoil, the climate crisis, and other tragedies that seem to be occurring nonstop. While it is important to remain informed, a boundary must be drawn regarding how much news they consume daily for those who struggle with anxiety. For Hoehn, this meant no TV and avoiding clicking all sensationalist links that popped up on his social media feed. Removing this negative information from his conscious awareness and replacing it with more positive information, such as improv shows or books on topics he was personally interested in, had profound effects on his mood and stress levels.
If you want to take it to the next level, Hoehn recommends what he calls “unplugged nature vacations.” This involves relocating to a scenic environment and disconnecting every technological device, and social media account for 24 hours. Only nature, face-to-face interactions, and books are permitted. This is a particularly useful way to reduce burnout amongst those working long hours in an office environment or even those working from home who are stuck in a productivity or emotional rut. Taking time off away from work might be a difficult thing to ask for, but ultimately, intermittently taking time off to reduce those feelings of burnout is what will increase your productivity, creativity, and well-being in the long run.
Lastly, Hoehn turns to monitoring one’s sleep schedule and caffeine consumption as two additional ways to keep anxiety at bay. Many of us are chronically in a sleep deficit without realizing it, which is only further compounded by overworking. Yet, fixing one’s sleep schedule can often feel like too big a mountain to climb. Indeed, anxiety is frequently at fault for preventing a good night’s sleep in the first place, with cyclical, ruminating thoughts making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.
To remedy this, Hoehn suggests completely optimizing your space for sleep. One tip was to plug in your phone further away from your bed, so it wasn’t as easy to reach over and begin doom-scrolling social media or the news. Additionally, keeping the room cool—between around 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit—can help optimize sleep. This is because our body temperature naturally decreases as part of the sleep initiation process. By instigating these temperature changes in our room, we can facilitate this body temperature decrease and make it easier to fall asleep. Removing all sources of light also helps prevent sleep disruption. To make your room as dark as possible, try blackout curtains or sleep masks, and remove all technology that produces light, such as TVs or computers.
The last tip was to commit to a consistent bedtime routine. Following the same steps each night and at the same time can reinforce in your mind that it’s time to sleep and ease the transition between wake time and sleep time. For a sleep-promoting routine, engage in relaxing activities such as reading or stretching and avoid stimulating activities such as doing work or discussing emotional issues.
While anxiety is sometimes inevitable, we can often make things worse for ourselves by engaging in maladaptive coping behaviors or neglecting these emotions in the first place. Yet, learning how to effectively manage your anxiety can feel like an overwhelming task in and of itself. The important thing is to explore what works best for you and your schedule, lifestyle, and daily needs. Some of these tips are easier than others. However, if you stick with them and follow through, you’ll find yourself in a different state of mind with much less burnout and more room to truly enjoy life.