Though stomach knots and sweaty palms are certainly no fun, anxiety is actually our ally, since it’s a warning system designed to alert us to potential danger. It only becomes a problem when our fear grows out of proportion to the actual threat. Even if your anxiety isn’t so extreme that it keeps you from doing things you want or need to do — like a full-blown phobia — it can still make certain situations tough. Fortunately, there are ways to cope. Below, find common anxiety-producing situations, plus tips from experts on how to deal with them. However, keep in mind that if your anxiety has started interfering with your daily life, such as impacting your job because you’re too anxious to make presentations, or causing you to drink excessively to cope with social anxiety, it’s time to seek help from a therapist.
Fear of flying
“While you may rationally know that you’re much safer flying on a plane than driving in a car, it’s the complete lack of control that can overwhelm people,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist and author of "A Happy You." Instead of imagining the worst-case scenario, Dr. Laura Pagano, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist in Roswell, Ga., suggests visualizing a happy ending in advance — like exiting the plane after a smooth, pleasant flight — that you can call on when your anxiety arises. “Should the fears surface, change the channel in your mind to the positive scenario you’ve conjured up.” Also, since it’s not physiologically possible to be both anxious and relaxed at the same time, Dr. Richard Kneip, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Clarkston, Mich., and director of Great Lakes Psychology Group, recommends that you try calming your body (and thus your mind) with progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) by contracting and releasing each muscle in the body one at a time. Most anxiety-prone people don’t realize how much tension they hold in their muscles, and PMR can teach you what it feels like when your muscles are truly relaxed. To do it, first close your eyes and focus on the rhythm of your breath. Then, starting with your feet, clench each muscle as tightly as possible, feeling the tension in the muscle before you relax it, then noting the release of tension. Repeat this process for each muscle — calves, thighs, buttocks, back, stomach, arms, shoulders and neck, all the way up to your head.
Discomfort about being confined to a small space, like an elevator or MRI machine, often stems from the fear that you’ll get stuck and be helpless, explains Lombardo. Deep breathing (breathing in and out for six counts each) will help calm you down in the moment, but for a longer-term fix, Kneip recommends systematic desensitization, which gradually exposes you to anxiety-provoking situations.
“Research has shown that individuals prone to this anxiety can learn to overcome it by pairing relaxation techniques with imagining themselves, or better yet, observing others in scenes from TV shows or movies, in increasingly confined spaces.” The key is to progress in small steps, advises Kneip, who says that it is generally best to start with the least anxiety-provoking images, objects or situations and gradually increase the intensity as you are able to successfully manage each along the way. For example, to combat anxiety about elevators, while practicing deep breathing, you might first imagine yourself walking down the hall toward an elevator. Once that thought no longer makes you anxious, move on to imagery of yourself waiting for an elevator door to open. Eventually, you should work up to picturing yourself actually being in the elevator for the duration of the ride.
Fear of public speaking
According to research from Emory University, the fear of public speaking is prevalent in up to 34 percent of the general population. Dr. Nick Titov, an associate psychology professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who has extensively studied treatments for phobias, notes that most good speakers have spent years practicing the skill, which is essential for minimizing anxiety since it helps desensitize you to the actual experience. First, do all you can to address factors you can control, like having handouts prepared in advance and timing your speech as you practice. Titov also suggests that you use cue cards with notes and focus on perfecting the beginning of your speech; if you have a smooth start, your anxiety will ease up once you get further into the presentation. And whenever possible, work in anecdotes about topics you’re passionate about, he suggests, since “most of us love to hear about what inspires others, and it's much easier to talk about things we enjoy.” Finally, in the time leading up to the day of your speech, try to identify any irrational thoughts driving your anxiety. Kneip says that you can reduce your sense of vulnerability by confronting these fears with rational rebuttals. If, for example, you’re worried that everyone will think you’re stupid if you make a mistake, he suggests countering with, “If I make a mistake it might be embarrassing, but it certainly doesn’t mean I'm stupid.”
Social situations can cause anxiety because we worry that others will think negatively of us, or that we won’t know what to say. To prevent that, Lombardo suggests keeping things in perspective: Most people are worried more about themselves than they are about you. And instead of dwelling on how others might be viewing you, focus on being truly present. “Really listen to, think about and direct all of your attention to the other person and the conversation at hand,” she says. “It will help reduce your anxiety and enhance the perception the other person has of you.” If you’re worried about not having anything to talk about, she recommends keeping some topics in your “back pocket” in case you need them. “Asking questions about the other person (without it seeming like an interview) can be great too, since it moves the focus from you to them.” Some examples she suggests are “Have you tried that new restaurant yet?” and “Did you watch 'American Idol' last night? What did you think?” You could also ask topic-specific questions: For instance, at a cocktail benefit, ask someone if he or she is involved with the cause.
Because there is a real risk here — of not getting a job and therefore not being able to support yourself — this situation often triggers a great deal of anxiety, says Titov. To lessen pre-interview jitters, he recommends doing research to learn as much as you can about the position and company to give you an idea of what they’re looking for. He also suggests preparing responses to likely questions and having practice interviews with friends or colleagues. Counter self-doubt by writing down ways that you’re qualified for the position. To keep your anxiety in check during the actual interview, Lombardo says that in addition to taking deep breaths, you should “remind yourself of a specific success you have had in the past where you felt proud of yourself, and use those feelings to propel yourself during the interview.” And focus on the interviewer, making sure to listen closely to what he or she is saying rather than just focusing on what you want to say. “Being truly mindful and present will help boost how the interviewer views you,” she says.
Visit to the doctor or dentist
There are a couple of reasons this can cause anxiety. For instance, you could be engaging in “what-if” thinking and dreading the worst-case scenario, says Lombardo, such as “What if the doctor finds a tumor?” She recommends keeping your fear in check by being diligent about regular checkups and cleanings, and “keeping in mind the difference between possibility and probability; just because your headaches could be a brain tumor, it’s overwhelmingly more likely that there’s something more innocuous causing them, like stress, fatigue or dehydration.” On the other hand, some people have really had a painful experience during a visit to the doctor or dentist, causing anxiety about future appointments. Systematic desensitization can be helpful here, too: At first, you might use relaxation strategies like deep breathing or PMR while imagining entering the dentist's office. Once you’re no longer anxious about this step, advises Kneip, repeat the process while “imagining yourself sitting in the dentist's chair, and then the dentist inserting dental instruments into the mouth, etc.” He says this approach is highly successful because it uses baby steps that don’t overwhelm people struggling with anxiety.
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