The 2-Question Method for Stopping Debilitating Anxiety Attacks Before They Start
Anxiety is often something people address after symptoms hit. This approach, however, identifies triggers and cuts anxiety attacks at their root before they cripple you.
Another anxiety article? Yes — because the triggers for our anxiety are ever present, even as we enter into a promising new year. Covid-19 looms, climate disasters breach communities all over the world, and our future in business is uncertain, even as we enjoy remarkably low unemployment.
Instead of dreading the onset of anxiety attacks that potentially will unravel our work and personal lives, it’s time to be proactive. Life — and business — continues, and we should push ahead toward innovation, growth, and ambitious goals with an eye toward safety and mental health.
Here are some steps I recommend for proactively managing anxiety:
Step 1: Identify common triggers. Yes, anxiety can be ever-present. However, it’s often the case that specific triggers are more likely to lead to full-blown anxiety attacks. Be aware of these — take stock of your situation and circumstances when you feel an attack coming on. Over time, you’ll likely notice patterns or triggers that reappear.
Step 2: As you work to identify triggers, implement a plan for tackling anxiety before it spirals out of control. Much of the advice I have offered in this column on curtailing anxiety is reactive. Having breathing and calming exercises at the ready is laudable, but it’s best to get ahead of the game.
As Eckhart Tolle has posited, anxiety is largely rooted in thoughts and feelings about the past or the future — things that cannot be changed or are unknown. Anxiety also feeds on inflated feelings that often don’t align with reality or fact. To tackle both as you feel anxiety building (i.e., as a trigger first hits), ask yourself two questions:
- Is my anxiety emanating from thoughts or feelings about the past or the future? If so, consciously move your thoughts to the now. It helps to bring your senses into the equation so that you have a tangible, experiential element to bring you to the present. What are you seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing right now? Focus on it.
- Are my feelings based on reality or fact, or are they rooted in my negative imagination? In other words, is your mind embellishing what’s real to create a bigger danger or threat that elicits emotional responses? It helps to identify, in concrete terms, what your feelings are based on. Then, match this up with what you know of reality.
This may seem like a silly exercise, but our mind is constantly humming, conjuring new thoughts that can spark a panic attack. If we train ourselves to be aware of the onset of anxiety and take time to cut it off at the pass before it has a chance to grow, we’ll reduce the potential for upheaval, emotional exhaustion, and mental strain.
This is especially key for business leaders who are always on the go, the anxious buzz of their minds ever in the background. Instead of anxiety derailing meetings, presentations, and critical work, take five minutes periodically to address it with the two questions above. Eventually, you will train your mind to think in the now, a now based in fact not fiction, calm not anxiety.