Four ways to cope with anxiety and fear

I was going to my first networking event. And I was FREAKING OUT.

I felt like Jessie Spano on caffeine pills, except without all the singing or bedazzled headbands. I sent countless texts to my husband, begging him to come with me. “Want to be my wingman?” and “There will be alcohol!” and “I gave birth to three children, it’s your turn, Buddy!” He was not to be moved, even with cute puppy GIFs. The man is like ice, I tell you.

Even though I knew my brain was signaling imminent death and destruction, I also knew I would be survive. Well, maybe I was mostly sure I would be survive. Because being a trained mental health therapist and life coach has its perks. You know stuff about feelings.

And now you get to know stuff about feelings too. More specifically, how to keep them from controlling your life.

Here are my four favorite tips for coping with anxiety:

  1. Recognize that anxiety is okay

  2. Know that feeling anxious doesn’t mean something is wrong

  3. Learn to “pump the brakes”

  4. Be curious about your anxiety

Recognize that anxiety is okay

We live in a "good vibes only" culture. So it’s like, if you don’t feel happy and amazing and you’re not vibrating like Marky Mark, you must be doing something wrong! (I can get super ranty about this, but that’s another blog post for another day).

So when anxiety arises, we often try to suppress or avoid it. We turn to alcohol, drugs, pizza, ice cream, Bachelor In Paradise, or some combination therein.

And since that generally doesn't work for long, we tend to get anxious about feeling anxious. Resisting emotions often magnifies them. And pretty soon you’ve binged an entire season of Bachelor In Paradise AND read all the tweets. It's a vicious cycle.

Listen, anxiety is a feeling. It serves a purpose. And if you feel it, congratulations, because you’re human. Anxiety is okay and so are you. Real talk.

Know that anxiety doesn't mean something is wrong

Our brains want to protect us. If it were up to them, we’d never leave the house. We’d live off Amazon and Instacart deliveries for eternity. Because safety first.

Doing something out of your comfort zone? Your brain will NOT be happy. It’s going to concoct the worst case scenario. Or multiple worst case scenarios. It will whisper, “Everyone at this networking event knows each other and you’re going to stand there like the awkward kid in the 8th grade lunchroom.” Or it will channel the mother in Stephen King’s Carrie, shouting, “They’re all gonna laugh at you!!!”

So you're suddenly flooded with worry and anxiety.

Nothing is wrong. When you understand this is your well-intentioned, but misguided brain, it can help you put anxious thoughts and feelings into perspective.

Learn to pump the brakes

Buckle up, here comes the science. Your stress response is like the gas pedal on your car. Your parasympathetic nervous system is like the brakes.

But many of us don't know how to activate that system. And pretty soon we're pulling a Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, speeding out of control and trying to avoid a crash. And no, it’s not going to end with kissing and romance and a disappointing sequel. It’s going to end in a crash or a bomb explosion. (And OMG I think this is the best metaphor I’ve ever come up with. You’re welcome.)

But, good news! You can learn how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep, abdominal breaths, repeating a soothing word like "Calm," or visualizing a peaceful scene can help you slow things down, pump the brakes, and regain control.

Be curious about your anxiety

We tend to judge our emotional experiences. Feelings are categorized as “bad” or “good.” And we can get pretty judgey about “bad” feelings like anxiety and fear. So we try to change them.

This tends to result in us doing one of three things:

  1. Suppress and avoid the feeling - See above about alcohol, drugs, eating, and bad reality TV

  2. Argue with the thoughts behind the feeling - “I will NOT make an ass of myself!” to which the brain is like, “Oh yeah? Remember when you made an ass of yourself in front of Drew in 7th grade?! This is totally going to be like that!” This argument approach almost never works and usually makes you feel even worse.

  3. Argue and suppress - Fight with your brain. Remember that time you were embarrassed in front of Drew the 7th grade hottie. Feel awful. Binge on ice cream and Netflix to escape.

But what if you put the judge on a shelf and get curious instead? When you approach anxiety with curiosity, you can gain new insights. You'll learn when you tend to feel anxious. You'll notice how it shows up in your thoughts and your body. And this information will help you learn to manage your anxiety.

That time I didn’t die, even though my brain said I would

As I walked up to the door of the networking event, the anxiety was going gangbusters. My palms were sweating, my heart was pounding in my chest, and I felt like I was going to cry. Because nothing says “I’m fun and professional!” like fear crying and sweat. I thought about turning around, but I hadn’t put on my special stomach-sucking-in undergarments for nothing, you know.

And spoiler alert, I lived to tell the tale. I got some encouragement from friends, took some deep breaths, walked in, met some nice people right off the bat, and waited for my hands to stop shaking (it only took 20 minutes). And when my husband called me from outside an hour later, I was actually disappointed to leave.

So, ask yourself, “What could you do if you didn't let fear get in the way?” Maybe you’d fall on your face. Or maybe, just maybe, you’d have a little fun and live to blog about it.