Guide on wellbeing: nervousness and anxiety

Tips on how to ease nervousness and anxiety and calm yourself down.

A constructive approach to anxiety

There are many ways to help ourselves deal with our anxiety so that it becomes more tolerable. It’s important to look for ways that work for you, because not all methods work for everyone. This section focuses on ways to relate to nervousness and anxiety in a constructive way. The idea is that the more you can relate to your anxiety with calmness, the more free you’ll feel to make your life pleasurable and meaningful! 

Different degrees of anxiety

It’s important to understand that the tension and anxiety reaction that is created in the body via the nervous system is a healthy reaction. So, experiencing anxiety does not mean that there’s anything wrong with you. The body simply tenses up in preparation to perform in an optimal way in an important situation. Unfortunately, it’s common that in these situations, your thoughts will start running around a thousand miles an hour – and suddenly, your body and mind are considerably more tense and anxious than would be necessary. This surplus tension can feel very unpleasant. If you experience very strong anxiety that feels like it’s becoming a hindrance to your capacity to do things, it’s a good idea to seek out expert help. 

The power of thinking

There are many reasons for why we get nervous in different situations. Something that often happens is that we start tensing up to an unnecessary degree because we’ve followed our thoughts away from the present moment to imaginary worlds that create unnecessary and unhelpful pressure on us. We often end up focusing on thoughts that evaluate us, compare us to others, or thoughts that are focused on controlling the outcome of a particular situation. We might for example start focusing on thoughts like “is my date going to like me enough or should I be different?” or “what is the audience going to think about my performance? Are they going to think I’m terrible?” We can note that the harsher and colder our thoughts are about ourselves, the more we’re going to have anxiety. 

Imagine the following scenario: Your friend is about to give a presentation in front of the class. They’re nervous, and you let them know that this is not acceptable, and that they need to calm down immediately. Otherwise everyone is going to notice the nervousness. You notice that this makes them tense up even more, and that now they’re sweating noticeably. You point this out to your friend and express your concern that everyone will think that they’re weak and pathetic, and laugh at them, if they don’t calm down. Now your friend’s hands are shaking and they’re starting to panic… 

Fortunately, most friends don’t behave this way, but unfortunately, our inner voice can sound similar to this example. In other words, we can accidentally create quite a bit of anxiety in ourselves just by talking to ourselves inside our heads in an unhelpful way. 

You can learn to calm down your nervous system with your thoughts

Here are some practical tips and ways of thinking that can work as an antidote to unnecessary anxiety: 

  • Practise mindfulness. Simply put, it’s the skill of being present in the here and now and noticing what is going through your mind. When you can notice your thoughts with more clarity, it’s considerably easier to increase having thoughts that are as helpful as possible in any given moment. Try practising mindfulness regularly, for example for 10 minutes each morning. 
  • Don’t try to get rid of your unhelpful thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations. Instead, let them come and go, like strange clouds in the sky. Keep adding helpful, pragmatic, and friendly thoughts on this “sky”. This way, you’re activating the body’s safety system, just like when a good friend is calming you down. Remember to cultivate a curious, open and warm attitude! If you notice that this feels difficult, and that you’ve again ended up speaking to yourself in an unpleasant way, try to allow even that experience to come and go, and add friendliness and patience around this experience as well! Basically, just keep adding warmth and friendliness around everything. 
  • Actively focus on the deep purpose in what you’re doing. Pay attention to why it’s important to you to try doing what you’re doing and what it represents to you in your set of values. You can notice how different this is compared to focusing on specific outcomes. For example: “I’m taking this risk because it’s important to me to be brave in my actions.” 
  • Carefully examine what actually is the worst thing that could happen. If you still want to do the thing, make an active choice to do it even despite your fears. Try to trust that you’re going to take good care of yourself even if the worst scenario becomes reality. 
  • Very often, all we need to perform well would be to relax and “listen to the moment”. This way it would be clearer for us to know what we should do or say next. If you tend to get nervous when you’re talking with people you don’t know and you end up trying to plan what you’re going to say in advance or otherwise control the situation, you can think about how you normally act when you’re talking to someone you’re comfortable with. You probably speak in a very spontaneous way, without a plan for what you’re going to say, and without trying to control what happens. Remember that it’s totally acceptable to do the same thing in a situation that makes you nervous. The more pressure you put on the situation, the more you will feel nervous about it. This way of relating to the moment effectively turns your attention away from unhelpful thoughts to the here and now. 
  • Try to approach stressful situations as if you’re never going to meet those people again in your life. So you have full permission to be completely spontaneous, warm and relaxed! With this kind of attitude, it’s likely that you’ll perform a lot better and that life will feel like it’s more fun and less stressful! 

If you feel like working on relaxing by yourself isn’t enough or if the anxiety you feel is very strong or debilitating, it’s important that you seek professional support, as there’s very effective help to be had. The key is to keep looking and experimenting until you find something that works well for you. At its best, even strong experiences of anxiety can be a path to deep self-knowledge and wellbeing. 

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