When you get yourself into an anxiety spiral, you probably have a few tried-and-tested ways to pull yourself back out.
Me? I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths, write down my worries, maybe go for a walk, or remind myself that I have total control over my mind and can choose my thoughts.
But what if other people spin your worry wheels? What can you do when their actions, behaviours or words get you all worked up and whizzy and dizzy?
A big part of making friends with your mind is focusing more on the things you can change in this moment, and letting go of the things you can’t control. Like other people.
So does that mean you should just sit there, getting all worked up while that guy on the bus natters loudly on the phone? Or stay silent as your bestie tells you all about her relationship troubles?
Actually, it’s the opposite.
In anxiety-inducing situations, we have to look after ourselves. Be assertive. Sometimes even stick up for ourselves.
Because here’s a truth about people: they’re focused on their own issues. And unless they’re uber-considerate, they often neglect to see how their actions affect the people around them – especially in confined spaces like buses and elevators.
So, we have to hold our own hands. Lead ourselves around or through the situation.
And here are a few ways you can do just that:
I know, I know. You’re supposed to confront your demons head-on. Push through, blah blah blah.
But sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes sticking around is the worst thing you can do for your anxiety.
If that guy on the bus won’t shut up, it’s OK to move seats.
If your friend’s troubles are triggering your own, it’s OK to cut the call short and tell her you’ll catch up when you’re in a better frame of mind to help.
You’ll probably get a sense for when to walk away from an anxiety-inducing situation. Just be sure to do it before you feel an anxiety or panic attack arising. Because preventing one is far better than treating one.
For me, walking away is my first approach. Because I feel an immediate sense of ease…and because I’ve learnt to choose my battles.
In the past, I used to rehearse in my head what I would say to someone who was bugging me. Like in a supermarket queue, if someone’s bag kept hitting my back, I would stand there while my heart raced faster and I prepared to ask the offender to take a step back. Or on the bus I would think, “OK, before the next stop, I’ll ask that guy to be quiet.”
But then the situation would change – I’d get to the front of the queue, or the guy would get off the bus – and I’d be left with my racing heart and sweaty palms and feel all the anxiety I would have felt from speaking up.
So…if you’re going to feel the same thinking about the situation or imagining yourself dealing with it, as you would actually dealing with it, why does it matter? You’ll experience the fear and symptoms anyway.
The only difference? When you stand up for yourself, you’ll probably feel amazing! It’s an accomplishment. Truly.
And if you don’t? Well, I don’t know about you, but I usually end up feeling a bit deflated and disappointed that I didn’t say what I wanted to.
So, this is my challenge to you: the next time someone else’s actions make you anxious, politely and assertively tell them. Ask for what you need. Explain how their behaviour makes you feel. (Disclaimer: if you’re held at gunpoint or are dealing with an aggressive person, it’s probably best to just walk away.)
Focus on you
It’s easy to get so caught up in what the other person is doing, that we lose the mind-body connection with ourselves. We’re getting more and more irritable, angry or upset…and losing control of our thoughts and feelings in the meantime.
So if you can’t (or prefer not to) walk away or deal with the situation, tune in to yourself.
Look inward. Feel what you’re feeling. And I mean really feel it. All the sensations, vibrations, symptoms. Close your eyes and experience the anxiety. Snuggle up to it. Understand it. Observe it.
Then, take back some control of your reactions. You could try a meditation (focusing on the rising and falling of your breath), think about something that brings you joy, or coach yourself through the situation (sometimes I’ll cheer myself on, like “It’s OK Katherine, you can totally get through this!”)
Or pop on a sleeping mask and ear plugs and simply zone out.
If you don’t wish to walk away, or speak up, what else can you do?
Try a little self-exploration exercise.
I tend to do this when another person is making me slightly anxious – but not enough that I need to deal with it immediately.
Let’s say you’re in the back of a cab, and the driver is screaming at the traffic and complaining about politicians and generally being a bit of a dick. You’re annoyed, a little unsettled, but see this as a chance to get better acquainted with your anxiety.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What is it about this person’s behaviour or speech that is making me anxious?
- What am I feeling in my body right now? Scan your body, taking your attention from your head to your feet, scanning for pain or anxiety symptoms like shaking or tightness.
- What can I do right now to release my anxiety? Perhaps a breathing exercise or meditation, listening to music, or massaging your neck.
- Do I want to deal with this person’s behaviour? If yes, consider walking away or speaking up. If no, accept your choice and try reframing the situation. For instance, can you find something amusing, funny or interesting in the other person’s behaviour? Or replace the anxious thoughts with appreciation for all the things in your life that you love.
I’d love to know how you go the next time someone triggers your anxiety. Just pop a comment below or comment in our private Facebook group.