Anxiety is the low static hum left over from unresolved stress, a persistent, residual pattern that grates on the nerves. When you have stress, you know it, but anxiety creeps up on you when you’re not looking.
It happened to me a few months ago. I sold my business last year, probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in my career. I was prepared for the stress. As soon as the sale was over, I thought, the stress will be gone. But it wasn’t.
I was productively moving forward in my new career when my anxiety kicked in. It started by waking me up at 2 am, with every small stress in my life looming large. I took to reading novels in the wee hours of the night to stop anxious thoughts, falling asleep at dawn for an hour or so before I had to get up and muddle though my day. The lack of sleep did not help my mood. I brooded even more on the small problems I faced.
Daniel Goleman calls anxiety, “an unrelenting readiness for emergency,”. That’s exactly how it felt, with every little problem setting off alarm bells. This constant over-reaction wore me down physically and mentally. Instead of feeling a mad adrenaline rush from stress, anxiety felt like a slow adrenaline leak that left me depleted. There were problems, but I didn’t have the energy to solve them. Everything seemed overwhelming.
My anxious thoughts started spilling over into my relationships. I confessed my deep fear about some small irritant at a dinner with a friend and she sat back looking at me like I was a stranger. Where did her fun night out with a friend go? My husband was a good sport until I nagged him one too many times, and he snapped: “You can live your life that way, but I am not going to think about the small stuff all the time.”
It was time for me recognize anxiety as the problem.
Real stress demands an immediate response. It’s like a bad flu, the kind that sends you to bed for three days. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more like a lingering cough. It doesn’t stop you from functioning, but it doesn’t allow you to function fully either.
Because it doesn’t demand attention, most of us ignore anxiety for a while and hope it will go away. As with other feelings, though, ignoring anxiety will not make it go away. Instead, it takes alternate forms, and resurfaces disguised as something else.
If you’re going to deal with your anxiety, first you have to identify it. That’s not always easy to do. Here as seven surprising ways anxiety can be disrupting your life:
- Waves of unattached emotion: Intense emotions are normal when a situation calls for them, but if you are feeling pangs of emotion when nothing in particular is happening, it might be anxiety.
- Preoccupation: When you have difficulty putting issues away even when you are dealing with routine work tasks or daily chores, your stress may have tipped into anxiety.
- Unwanted thoughts: If thoughts seem to disrupt you or your mood suddenly when you least expect them, you might be having more trouble coping than you think.
- Dogged thoughts or emotions: Sometimes, you just can’t shake thoughts or feelings associated with something stressful that’s happening. If that’s happening, it’s a sign you’re anxious.
- Being on edge: Do little things set off big reactions? Are you startled by the slightest disruption? Being hyper-vigilant is anxiety in disguise and can wear you out.
- Sleeplessness: When you wake up thinking about issues that have you stressed, you add lack of sleep to the list of things to worry about.
- Bad dreams: You don’t have to wake up to be disturbed by anxiety. Even in your dreams, they will show up.
I had nearly all these symptoms, but once I recognized it, I was able to calm myself down and let a lot of it go. If you have anxiety, try this three-step process for managing better:
Step 1: Identify the main source of the stress. Anxiety tends to be general and diffuse, without a cause or pattern like static, and is not always connected to the stressful situation that caused it. Try to identify the emotion you’re feeling and then ask yourself: what in your life has that emotion attached to it. If you are open and honest with yourself, it will lead you to the stressful item that you need to cope with. Once you know, you can focus your coping skills on problems where you’re likely to get the biggest benefit.
Step 2: Determine how much of the stress is caused by factors you can control. If there are factors you can control directly, deal with those first. If there are indirect factors, where you can influence someone else who has more control, work your influence channels. If there are factors out of your control, it’s time to figure out the best way to live with it or figure out work-arounds that will minimize impacts.
Step 3: Figure out if the stress is a long term, on-going problem, or if it is a relatively short lived and temporary situation. If it’s long term, you’re going to need coping skills with equal longevity. Dedicate some time to managing your emotions like you manage other resources like time. This might mean compartmentalizing it. You might decide to deal with the stress on the weekends, not during the work week, or alternately, you might decide to leave work troubles at work and not to bring them home. If it is short term, knuckle down and problem-solve with the intensity needed to resolve it and get the best result possible. Find quiet time to work on the problem as directly as you can. Find what works to resolve the worst of it and make it manageable.
In the end, the point is not to resolve every cause of the stress. Look, we all have to live with stress. The point is to manage your feelings and get a better sense of perspective. That way, you’ll have less anxiety, and more energy to deal with the real issues. You’ll be happier in spite of what you can’t control.
As a coach certified in the EQi 2.0 and Emotional Intelligence, I help my clients increase their coping skills and emotional intelligence. Book a free session to find out how you can benefit from coaching.