Chances are you’re experiencing some stress and anxiety right now. Between the pandemic, politics, and the economic downturn, there are plenty of potential calamities out there.
But what is actually happening in your body? When you notice a threat, you engage your avoidance motivational system, which gives you energy to engage in activities that will help you to evade that threat. Research pioneered by Tory Higgins and his colleagues finds that when you are trying to avoid a particular threat, it also makes you more sensitive to other threats in the environment. As a result, the whole world can seem like a more stressful and dangerous place when you’re dealing with a particular problem than it does when you are focused on pursuing a desirable outcome.
In many situations in the past, you could ultimately deal with the stress and anxiety by avoiding the threat. If you were stressed about something at work, you could finish the report, correct the error, or deal with the client that was causing the potential problem. And after that, you could focus your energy on something else.
In this environment, though, many of the factors that engage your avoidance motivation are things you can’t fix by yourself—and some of them won’t go away quickly. Here are four things you can do to deal with this anxiety (presented in the order that goes from easiest to hardest, but also least to most effective in stopping the anxiety for the long run).
1. DECREASE THE ENERGY
Whenever your motivational system engages a goal, you have motivational energy that is put against the goal. That energy is there to spur action. If there was a dangerous animal in your environment, you could run from it or fight it off. When there isn’t a specific action you can take, then that energy just intensifies the emotional response without allowing you to accomplish anything.
That is where energy reduction techniques come in. You can either engage in meditation and mindfulness techniques aimed to calm the motivational energy, or dissipate that energy through an activity such as exercising or going for a walk.
Calming that energy reduces anxiety in the short run, but you haven’t done anything to remove the threat from the environment. As a result, you’re likely to build up stress and anxiety again. You’re treating the symptom, but it will return.
2. STOP THE CYCLE OF RUMINATION
One of the other reasons to engage in mindfulness techniques (rather than just exercise) is that by paying attention to your pattern of thoughts, you become able to recognize when you start a cycle of negative thinking about what you find stressful. This pattern of repeated thoughts is called rumination, and it can lead you to maintain your anxiety.
As you become better able to recognize when you are ruminating, you can then explicitly focus on something else. Write about what is bothering you so that you don’t feel like you have to keep thinking about it. Call a colleague and have a conversation about something else. Read an article about a topic you are eager to learn about.
By learning to redirect your thoughts rather than ruminating, you can decrease the duration of the episodes where you feel anxious.
3. TAKE SOME CONTROL
Part of why many people are anxious right now is because there are many threats out there you can’t do anything about. That can lead to feelings of helplessness.
That is when you should find something on your to-do list that’s easy and doesn’t require a lot of effort to complete successfully. It always feels good to finish a task. So, do something that doesn’t require your best work self (because the anxiety may make it hard to summon that best self) and get it done. The combination of completing something and taking an active role in your work will reduce your level of stress. It might even let you get to work on something more difficult.
4. ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE
Finally, the most effective (and hardest) way to deal with anxiety is to focus on something desirable you want to achieve. It is difficult to do that, because your avoidance motivation will cause you to see the flaws and problems with any course of action you want to take. And so, it can be difficult to truly engage with a goal to achieve a desirable work outcome.
But, when you do start putting energy toward something desirable, you actually flip your motivational system from the avoidance mode that led to the stress to the approach mode that you use to go after desirable outcomes.
Getting into the approach mode has two desirable outcomes. First, pursuing a particular desirable outcome helps you to notice other potential desirable things in the world. The whole world will look better and more hopeful when you are energized to achieve something positive.
Second, your motivational system signals that you are in the approach mode with a different set of emotions than the avoidance system uses. When you are pursuing a positive outcome, you experience anticipation. And when you achieve it, you feel happy, joyous, or satisfied. Even if you don’t succeed, you’ll feel disappointed rather than stressed.
Ultimately, you want to develop skills in using all of these techniques so that you can handle the next several months as the pandemic continues as well as that time off into the future when the pandemic is over, but there are still undesirable outcomes in the world you want to avoid.